My mum always used to tell me, “It's not only what you eat that is important, but when you eat as well”. It appears that she was right on how timing is just as crucial. Various studies have indicated a relationship between meal timing and the incidence of cardiovascular events, such as stroke and heart disease.
The science behind it
While our bodies are controlled by a ‘master clock’ in our brains, each organ is controlled by its own clock. These clocks are regulated by food intake to ensure we perform the right digestive and metabolic functions at the correct times.
When we eat late at night, for instance, blood pressure rises despite our normal clock telling it to decline in preparation for sleep1. This food-induced sustained elevation may raise the risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack.
Timing for optimal heart health
Strict statements, such as “never eat after 8 P.M.” or “everyone should eat breakfast”, are not beneficial as every individual has their own schedule and dietary regime preferences. However, here are some recommendations from experts on healthy meal timing.
1. Spread out your calories
Spreading out calorie intake over the day is better for our bodies than eating a huge, late-night meal containing lots of calories. Individuals who consume small and frequent meals present favourable cardiovascular factors, including better heart function and damage-free arteries. While the research is still in its infancy, allocating calories early in the day might help decrease heart disease risk².
Tip! If your daily schedule does not allow for earlier food intake patterns, make your evening meal a lighter one rather than skipping it completely.
While experts agree your calories should be spread out throughout the day, it is less clear whether three square meals, or small but more frequent ones is more beneficial. However many meals you decide to have per day, ensure to steer away from processed foods with high sugar contents.
2. Try not to skip breakfast
Over the last few decades, there has been a reduction in breakfast being consumed. Skipping breakfast has been indicated as a risk for poor cardiovascular health. In one study it was reported that those who do not regularly consume breakfast are 21% more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease3.
Many skip breakfast in an attempt to lose weight. Ironically, by missing breakfast, our appetite increases later in the day; this could lead to overeating and weight gain, which is one of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, skipping a meal in the morning can influence key hormonal processes that play a role in controlling blood pressure; missing meals may cause blood pressure to increase4.
Tip! If eating breakfast in the morning is not your forte, try having your last meal of the day at least two hours before bed and avoid snacks after dinner. You can also try having a small breakfast, such as a piece of fruit. Your body’s metabolism will eventually become accustomed to this daily pattern and eating in the morning will get easier.
3. Try to maintain consistent, day-to-day mealtimes
Other than meal timing, research has shed light on the importance of day-to-day and weekend-weekday regularity in our consumption of food. Inconsistencies between days, such as differences in timing, the duration of the intake period and the extent of evening eating are associated with various heart health risk factors, including negative changes in blood pressure and body fat5. These effects are attributable to our circadian rhythms and the demands of modern life; during the week we follow our natural biological clock, while on the weekends we adopt a social clock.
Tip! While it may be hard to synchronise weekday and weekend schedules of modern life, trying to develop consistent eating patterns is the best advice to follow.
- Glazier, E. and Ko, E. Ask the Doctors – Are 6 small meals a day better than 3 big ones. [Internet]. UCLA Health. [updated 2013 March 13; cited 2022 Jan 17]. Available from: https://connect.uclahealth.org/2018/03/13/ask-the-doctors-debating-the-benefits-of-eating-six-small-meals-a-day/
- Wei W, Jiang W, Huang J, Xu J, Wang X, Jiang X, Wang Y, Li G, Sun C, Li Y3, Han T. Association of Meal and Snack Patterns With Mortality of All‐Cause, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer: The US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2003 to 2014. Journal of the American Heart Association. 2021;10(13):e020254.
- Ofori-Asenso R, Owen AJ, Liew D. Skipping breakfast and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death: a systematic review of prospective cohort studies in primary prevention settings. Journal of cardiovascular development and disease. 2019;6(3):30.
- Rong S, Snetselaar LG, Xu G, Sun Y, Liu B, Wallace RB, Bao W. Association of skipping breakfast with cardiovascular and all-cause mortality. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2019;73(16):2025-32.5. Makarem N, Sears DD, St-Onge MP, Zuraikat FM, Gallo L, Talavera GA, Castaneda S, Xi H, Aggarwal BA. Social jet lag in eating patterns as a marker of meal timing variability is associated with elevated cardiometabolic risk in the AHA Go Red for Women Strategically Focused Research Network. Circulation. 2020;142(Suppl_3):A13175.