Chrononutrition: the importance of meal timing

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

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.

What is your circadian rhythm?

Your circadian rhythm is your 24-hour sleep cycle. It is generally determined by the rise and fall of the sun. Our bodies are naturally attuned to wake up at sunrise, and begin to feel sleepy as darkness falls. This is when the production of the sleep hormone ‘melatonin’ starts to set in.

The chrononutrition definition looks at the link between eating and sleeping.

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

Research from Healthline reveals

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.

What is chrono consumption?

Chrono consumption is the process of timing your food with your sleep cycle. This is why meal timing is so important – it can help us to be more productive. 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 behavioural 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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