IT’s not just what you eat that raises your risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes – researchers now say what time you eat may also play a role.
Late night eating is linked to higher blood pressure, larger BMI and poorer blood sugar control.
Scientists say this is because the digestive system is less efficient at night because of something called circadian rhythms.
Circadian rhythms are the 24-hour cycles that dictate everything from when we feel sleepy to when our immune cells are most active.
And these cycles enable our bodies to prepare for regular events – including the arrival of food.
Our digestive system is no exception – as we produce less saliva at night, our stomach produces fewer digestive juices, the intestinal contractions that move food through the gut slows down and we are less sensitive to the hormone insulin.
This means we process food more efficiently during the day.
Our bodies are set up like this as for most of human history eating has been done during the day and night-time was for sleep.
Professor Satchin Panda, who researches circadian rhythms at the Salk Institute in California, said: “We have been hard-wired to go through this daily cycle.”
Despite this, with the invention of electric light, many people are now staying up later and eating long after sunset.
Experts are now warning this could have potential negative consequences for our health.
Worse heart health
For example, a recent study presented at an American Heart Association conference revealed that the more a woman ate after 6pm, the worse her heart health was.
She also had a greater risk of higher blood pressure and body mass index, and poorer long-term control of blood sugar.
Other studies have found that people who eat late have a greater risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Professor Panda uncovered this while studying mice – and compressing the window when they ate food.
Professor Panda fed two groups of mice the same high-fat, high-sugar diet – the only difference being one group had 24/7 food access and the other could eat only during an eight-hour window in their ‘daytime’.
What is type 2 diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes is a common condition that causes the level of sugar (glucose) in the blood to become too high.
It can cause symptoms like excessive thirst, needing to pee a lot and tiredness. It can also increase your risk of getting serious problems with your eyes, heart and nerves.
It’s a lifelong condition that can affect your everyday life. You may need to change your diet, take medicines and have regular check-ups.
It’s caused by problems with a chemical in the body (hormone) called insulin. It’s often linked to being overweight or inactive, or having a family history of type 2 diabetes.
Many people have type 2 diabetes without realising. This is because symptoms do not necessarily make you feel unwell.
Symptoms of type 2 diabetes include:
- Peeing more than usual, particularly at night
- Feeling thirsty all the time
- Feeling very tired
- Losing weight without trying to
- Itching around your penis or vagina, or repeatedly getting thrush
- Cuts or wounds taking longer to heal
- Blurred vision
On one hand, the first group gained weight and began to develop high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.
However, the group on a time-restricted diet remained relatively slim and healthy – despite consuming the same number of calories.
Remarkably, time-restricted eating was even able to reverse type 2 diabetes in mice.
Preliminary research suggests meal timing may also be important for human health, with studies finding that those who eat dinner an hour before bedtime have poorer blood sugar control than those who dine earlier.
And dieters who consume the bulk of their calories before 3pm lose around 25 per cent more weight than those who feast later.
Despite this, scientists have say it is too early to issue detailed advice on meal timings.
In particular, we don’t yet understand why late night, or extended, eating may be bad for us.
Professor Panda believes the reason time-restricted eating is better for our health is because it provides our guts with more opportunity to repair and recuperate.
Up to one-tenth of the cells lining our guts is damaged every day by the normal course of digestion, and eating a late-night meal followed by an early breakfast leaves very little time for any repairs to be made.
How to tell if you’re obese
The most widely used method to check if you’re a healthy weight is body mass index (BMI).
BMI is a measure of whether you’re a healthy weight for your height. You can use the NHS BMI healthy weight calculator to work out your score.
For most adults, a BMI of:
- 18.5 to 24.9 means you’re a healthy weight
- 25 to 29.9 means you’re overweight
- 30 to 39.9 means you’re obese
- 40 or above means you’re severely obese
BMI is not used to diagnose obesity because people who are very muscular can have a high BMI without much fat.
But for most people, BMI is a useful indication of whether they’re a healthy weight.
A better measure of excess fat is waist size, which can be used as an additional measure in people who are overweight (with a BMI of 25 to 29.9) or moderately obese (with a BMI of 30 to 34.9).
Generally, men with a waist size of 94cm or more and women with a waist size of 80cm or more are more likely to develop obesity-related health problems.
Professor Panda said: “Just as we cannot repair a road when there is traffic, it is difficult to repair our guts when there is food in our stomachs.”
He adds that eventually the barrier between the inside of the gut and the rest of the body can become ‘leaky’, allowing allergy-causing chemicals and bacteria through, increasing general levels of inflammation in the body and triggering ill health.
It may also be important to keep your meal times, whatever hour you choose to eat, regular.
This is because eating at unexpected times can shift the timing of the ‘clocks’ in our digestive tissues, causing them to become desynchronised from clocks elsewhere in our bodies, and making our metabolisms less efficient.
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For example, research from last month suggests that having breakfast later at weekends than you do during the week will lead to weight gain.
Dr Gerda Pot, a visiting lecturer in nutritional studies at King’s College London, said: “The general advice is to have regular meal patterns and allow your body to have periods of non-consumption or fasting.
“Perhaps going back to a pattern of three meals per day without snacking, like our grandparents and great-grandparents, would not be so bad after all.”
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