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Chrononutrition: why when you eat matters

In this Braincare session we explore why meal timing matters, and how it affects you mentally and physically.

April 25, 2021
4 min read

It’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s not just what you eat that matters, but when as well. In recent years, a growing body of research shows that the timing of our meals has an impact on our physical and mental performance, as well as our metabolic health—which is our ability to break down, digest, and metabolise food. 

This area of research coined the term “chrononutrition”, which looks at the interaction between your body’s circadian system and nutrition, and how that might be affecting you both mentally and physically. 

Chrononutrition basics—what’s a chronotype?

Believe it or not, there’s actually a reason why you’re either a morning lark or a night owl. A biological clock inside your head determines when you sleep, and what times you're most productive. 

Tick-tock, tick-tock. 

This internal clock is affected by light and darkness, and impacts your appetite, sleep, and hormones. This time-of-day preference also means that you may not be hungry at a time when other people are eating—a factor that would result in you behaviourally timing your meals. Your chronotype is genetically determined and is a behavioural expression of an underlying preference that you have.

There are 3 chronotypes: 

  1. Morning type

  2. Evening type

  3. Neither

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Some research splits chronotypes into four types naming them: 

1. Bear

Most people have a bear chronotype, where their sleep and wake cycle follows the sun. Bear chronotypes wake and sleep easily. Productivity is best before noon, and decreases between 2 pm and 4 pm. 

2. Wolf 

Wolf chronotypes struggle to wake up in the morning. They feel more energetic when they wake at noon, where their peak productivity begins and then ends at 4 pm. They generally get another burst of energy at 6 pm. 

3. Lion 

Lion chronotypes wake early in the morning before the sun rises. Productivity is best between when they wake up until 4 pm. They generally sleep by 9 pm-10 pm. 

4. Dolphin

Dolphin chronotypes struggle to follow any sleep schedule. They are most productive between 10 am-2 pm. 

Knowing your chronotype helps you understand your sleep cycles, when you’re most productive, as well as give you insight into your eating habits. 

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Why meal timing is important

In the past, our ancestors would eat in the morning, and be asleep during the evening. 

In modern Western societies, however, there seems to have been a pattern of behavioral shift where people sleep later, thereby delaying their first meal to later in the day. As it turns out, this change in eating patterns may not be good for metabolic health over the long term.

Meal timing is important as it affects the distribution of energy, blood glucose levels, and insulin responses. Most chrononutrition literature supports the idea that your general capacity to regulate blood glucose levels and have appropriate insulin responses to meals is impaired in the evening. This means that eating irregularly and later in the day is potentially associated with obesity, weight gain, and other health issues.  

Being aware of your eating and sleeping habits will allow you to time your meals in order to support optimal metabolism and reduce health risks. 

Top tips 

  • Try to align your daily routine with your time-of-day preference.

  • Literature suggests that eating past 9 pm will cause you to suffer metabolically. You cannot process fats or carbohydrates as effectively past 9 pm, so try eating earlier. 

  • Reduce the amount of food you’re consuming in the evening, and be conscious of the fact that your ability to metabolise food is impacted. 

  • Although we try to conform to social pressures by eating and sleeping at particular times, ultimately we’re all different, and we need to find our optimum and work towards that as much as we can. 

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