For years, the dietary mantra was three square meals a day, with maybe a snack in between. Then, some experts recommended having several little meals throughout the day. Unfortunately, many adopted a hybrid of the two – eating meals or snacks all day long or they snack at night. A new study published Thursday in the journal Cell Metabolism, and the epidemic of obesity and healthy problems, clearly shows that Americans’ haphazard or round-the-clock eating patterns are not working. However, the study shows that a simple change of mindfully maintaining a longer fast period after dinner helps improve health and lose weight.
“People do a lot of mindless eating,” according to the study author, Satchin Panda, an associate professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. “They walk into a room and they see a cookie and coffee and they are not thinking if they are hungry or not and they pick it up.”
For a three-week period, the 150 participants used an app called MyCircadian Clock to track everything they ate or drank. They photographed things before consuming then and the photos were time stamped. This allowed the researchers to know when and what they were eating
After a few weeks, the scientists were able to discern clear diet and fasting patterns. For example, the participants generally averaged fewer than 25 percent of their daily calories before noon and more than 37 percent of their caloric intake after 6 p.m. Many claimed to eat three discrete meals each day, but the pattern was not obvious in what they recorded. Instead, most participants ate “frequently and erratically” throughout the day, with about half grazing for an average of 15 hours per day and only fasting while they slept. About 25 percent ate something on average every 1.5 hours. They also found that people who had some candy early in the day continued consuming sweets all day long.
For the next phase of the study, the research team recruited eight people who typically ate more than 14 hours per day from the original participants. They were asked to take part in a subsequent four-week intervention study.
The group was asked to restrict their eating to only 10 to 12 hours a day and fast the rest. The group of eight was not asked to change what they ate. They were merely asked to restrict their eating hours while continuing to record what food and drink they consumed in the app.
This recommendation was derived from a previous Panda study conducted. He had found that mice who ate the same amount of calories as other mice, but only ate for 12 hours a day, had more endurance, lower levels of fat mass, better sleep habits and slower cardiac aging.
With no change in eating habits, the eight lost seven pounds, on average, in the next four months. In addition, the participants reported improved sleep and energy levels.
“People eat as soon as they wake up and roughly eat as long as they are awake,” Panda noted. Pointing out other research that correlates lack of sleep with obesity and diabetes, he noted that limiting “eating hours” makes a difference in metabolism and the ability to regulate sleep. Per the study described in Cell Metabolism, cutting eating hours, or basically having a longer fast period after dinner, helps people lose weight, which can be more effective than changing what they eat during the day.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
Cell Metabolism: A Smartphone App Reveals Erratic Diurnal Eating Patterns in Humans that Can Be Modulated for Health Benefits
Los Angeles Times: Longer fasts might help with weight loss but Americans eat all day long
Today: When we eat is just as important as what we eat, new study shows
Nature World Report: An app that tracks over-eating behavior in Americans