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What time should you eat each meal and is it important for health and fitness?

Posted by for Nutrition

You might be surprised to find out how much your meal times affect your health. Here, a nutritionist explains why eating regularly and consistently can be important.

When life gets busy, it can be difficult to stick to a regular routine. Working, exercising and getting enough sleep are all things we have to balance every day. This might mean that we’re not prioritising the food we eat.

Whether it’s skipping your lunch break for a sandwich at your desk or a coffee in place of breakfast, mealtimes often become a non-event. We all know the importance of eating well but how important is it that we eat regularly at consistent times?

Research suggests having regular mealtimes could have significant benefits for our health. A 2019 paper published in the Journal of Biological Rhythms found that eating at consistent times is important for a robust circadian rhythm (our natural biological timing system that helps regulate our bodies) and they also optimize our metabolism. The study also showed that irregular eating patterns have been associated with type two diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Just like with sleep patterns, according to this research, our bodies favour consistent routines when it comes to food.

Nutritionist Kimberley Neve explains that eating at regular, consistent times is also beneficial for our digestive system. “It takes about five hours for our stomachs to empty so this is usually the right amount of time to leave between meals,” she says, explaining that 8am for breakfast, 1pm for lunch and 6pm or 7pm for dinner is an example of how someone with regular working hours could schedule their meals.

Neve continues to explain that our stomachs are about half empty two to three hours after eating, which is why snacking can be helpful. However, it’s best to not have another big meal until the last one has been probably broken down by our stomach acid in order to avoid digestive issues like bloating or constipation.

This won’t necessarily be true for everyone though. “Everyone’s bodies work in different ways and everyone also has very personal relationships to food,” Neve says. For people with a history of disordered eating, like issues with binge-eating or anorexia, regular meal times can be very helpful, according to Neve, in order to bring some structure to the way you eat. However, she continues to explain, if you haven’t struggled with disordered eating, you may have a better sense of when you’re hungry and you can therefore be more flexible with your mealtimes.

Most of us have grown up eating three meals per day but with trends like intermittent fasting becoming more popular, this isn’t necessarily the case for everyone now. Neve says that, again, the number of meals you want to eat comes down to individual preference and if you feel hungrier for five or six smaller meals, that might not necessarily be a problem as long as they’re regular and evenly spaced out. However, she does stress that if you struggle with gut health issues, it’s really important to leave enough space between each of your meals.

If you exercise regularly, this might also affect your mealtimes. “It takes around 10% of your body’s energy to digest food so when you exercise and all of your energy goes on that, your body might not be able to digest food as quickly,” Neve explains. She advises waiting three hours after eating a big meal before exercising, if you can, in order to avoid this. If you do want to eat in this period, opt for something that will digest quickly, like cow’s milk or soy milk.

Finally, Neve explains that regular meal times can also be beneficial for our energy levels and focus. “People often feel tired as a result of their nutrition,” Neve says. “Regular meal times can help you maintain energy as the brain runs on glucose.” Neve recommends slow-burning foods like whole foods in order to help you maintain energy in between mealtimes.

Images: Getty

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