when you eat

When you eat

If your health score assessment has highlighted ‘when you eat’ as an area of improvement then please read this resource as it contains some useful information and resources to help you.

Is ‘When you eat’ important?

The timing of eating and the frequency of eating is a slightly more debated area in nutrition than most. I would say that what you eat over a 24 hour period and how consistent you are with your food choices is more important than timing, however timing can also be an area of consideration.

Everyone is a little different and our physiology, the type of diet we choose to eat and external factors like exercise and sleep times will often influence when you eat and what works best for you.

Since studying and working in the field of nutrition (over 20 years now), I have seen significant changes in what is recommended for eating frequency and timing. From the 90’s and early 2000’s where 5 meals per day and the eat regularly to keep your metabolism up trend (and misinformation) was rife, through to the 2000’s where everyone spoke about meals and snacking for glucose regulation to the current state of affairs where intermittent fasting and infrequent eating is one of the most popular recommendations in this field.

The reality is that for some people eating 5 times a day works really well, whereas for others as low as 1-2 times per day can be optimal. We have to retain an open mind with what is going to work best for ourselves.

The most important part of establishing meal frequency and timing is picking a methodology, sticking to it and observing how you get along with it. Don’t be fixed to that methodology, be open minded enough that you can change to an alternative approach. You may even find that on some days it works best for you to have less meals than on other days. Open mindedness and flexibility are crucial when it comes to nutrition. As soon as we define ourselves by our diet it makes it very hard to have that flexibility and change things in the future, even if that approach is no longer supporting you. This not only goes for when you eat but what you eat as well.

Your dietary choices do not define who you are!

In my forthcoming book Sleep, Eat, Move, Breathe, Repeat, it covers my five foundations of optimal health:

  • Sleep – All things sleep
  • Eat – How, Why, What & When you eat
  • Move – Exercise & daily movement
  • Breathe – Impacts of stress, solution/management of stress, mindfulness etc
  • Repeat – Behaviour change, motivating change, scheduling, long term success

For ‘When We Eat’, I go into detail about meal timing associated with:

  • The circadian rhythm / your body clock
  • Exercise demands
  • Energy demands
  • Digestive health
  • Sleep Health
  • Metabolic diseases and cardiovascular risk, brain function, cancer, obesity/weight gain and more

I will touch on areas such as intermittent fasting, extended fasts and guide you to find a meal frequency that is best suited to your own personal needs and not just another broad sweeping generalised recommendation.

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Until my book is released, I wanted to at least provide some initial recommendations and links to useful resources, so you can make some initial changes.

Tips to help you establish your meal frequency and timing

Whilst meal frequency and timing can be very individual there are also some general recommendations that I feel are fit for purpose on a more general scale. Below you will find some guidelines to help guide you with establishing your own meal frequency and timing.

Eat in accordance to your Circadian Rhythm

Food has the ability to influence our circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm (24-hour body clock) is something that all animals and plants exposed to sunlight have. It can dictate when certain functions take place in the body, when certain organs/systems in the body are most active, when to repair, sleep or whether certain hormones are secreted or not secreted at certain times.

The circadian rhythm is fundamental in allowing us to know internally what time of day it is.

Research has shown that eating is a key external clue for our body clock. This means eating late at night when the digestive system is least active may have negative consequences on both how we digest food as well as how well we sleep.

Equally, irregular mealtimes and unintentionally skipping meals may send confusing messages to your body clock, not allowing it to maintain the 24-hour harmony that it has developed throughout evolution.

Here are some tips to help you eat in accordance to your body’s natural rhythms:

  1. Avoid consuming calories within 2-3 hours of going to bed
  2. Choose regular mealtimes based upon the frequency that best suits you. Whether it is 2 meals a day or 5 meals a day, try and be regular. This will typically assist how well you digest food as well.
  3. Try to have a minimum 12 hour fast daily. This might mean from 7pm to 7am the next day. For those that feel comfortable to do so, that fast can be extended beyond the 12 hour mark.

Establishing meal frequency based upon energy demands

Here is one that will shift around a lot. What you have to establish is how frequent your meals need to be for the demands that you place upon it, and the energy intake required for optimal function.

Let’s say for example you are a professional athlete, exercising twice per day 5 days per week and you require 5,000 calories per day. Chances are you are not going to be able to have just 2 meals a day, these calories are going to need to be spread over more meals purely from an ability to consume that level of food.

On the other hand, you may have a sedentary job and exercise very little or just do more lower intensity type activities. As a result, it is likely you will need to manage your calorie levels a little more and will certainly not need to be consuming that level of calories. As a result, you may only require 1500 calories a day. So why would you want to have such a high meal frequency, instead you might opt for 2-3 meals per day. This helps you to manage your intake as well as still having satisfying meal or building in a little flexibility with your food choices.

Establish Meal Frequency based upon glucose management and food choices

Here is a slightly controversial area. Many people find that they are sensitive to changes in glucose or react in more severe ways to missing meals or eating certain foods.

Some people can find themselves getting irritable when missing a meal or perhaps you feel lightheaded 3-4 hours after eating.

It is true that some people have a harder time managing their blood glucose and they experience peaks and dips in glucose that significantly affect their energy levels, mood and so forth.

You may find this article about why people get “hangry” (Hungry/Angry) interesting.

If you do find you get these peaks and troughs in energy and mood, then perhaps some of the tips below are relevant to you:

  1. Eat closer to 3-5 meals per day initially. But as you do so also assess what you eat. Often glucose variability is to do with the choices that you make as well. You may find the variability reduces as you increase fibre, proteins & fats in the diet and reduce the refined carbohydrates or ensure carbohydrate rich foods are not the main event on your plate.
  2. As you change what you eat, and your body adapts to other fuel sources, you may find you can eat less frequent as a result of better glucose management and better use of fats as a fuel source.
  3. I have found that those choosing a vegan or vegetarian diet tend to do better on a slightly higher meal frequency (3-5 x per day), whereas those on higher fat, lower carb diets can do well on a lower meal frequency (2-3 x per day).

Establishing meal frequency based upon digestive health

Digestive symptoms are one of the most common health complaints. Many people believe progressive bloating through the day or excessive bloating after eating is just part of life.

There are many things that influence the health of one’s digestive system. The foods we eat, the stress we expose ourselves to and even the frequency and timing of eating as well.

Some people experience symptoms like bloating, distension, reflux etc because they lack sufficient periods of time between meals, have a feeding window that is too long each day or eat too close to bedtime.

Those with digestive symptoms often do best with reduced meal frequency, perhaps more like 2-4 meals per day, ensuring a minimum 12 hour fast daily, at least 3 hours between consuming calories and going to bed and having at least 4 hours between any meal or snack in the day.


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