Timing when you eat can often be as important to your health goals as what you eat. Meal timing plays an important role in metabolism, blood sugar balance and weight loss. There are peak times for when your body is best able to take in food and use it for nutrients and energy. These times map to a circadian rhythm, or your wake/sleep cycle that aligns with the sun. Paying attention to when you eat can help support:
- Balanced energy
- Blood sugar regulation
- Healthy weight loss and metabolism
This general guidance can be applied to healthy individuals. Always consult your doctor before applying any changes to your diet or nutrient intake. The recommendations below do not apply to pregnant or breastfeeding women, Type 1 diabetics, professional athletes or anyone with active eating disorders or weight-gaining goals.
Meal Timing and Intermittent Fasting
The “fasting” done in the evening is simply the period of time between your last meal and the first meal the next day. Your DNA is already coded for rest and repair while the sun is down, so fasting allows your body to stop breaking down food and focus on necessary maintenance.
Moreover, the body isn’t conditioned to use up a lot of energy before bed. You’re even metabolically less sensitive to glucose at night, so adding carbohydrates before you slow down and go to bed promotes storage of those calories – in adipose (fat) cells.
The length of time you fast will depend on a wide variety of factors, including hormones or energy needs. For example, a landscaper or firefighter may have different needs from someone who spends most of the day at a desk. Men and women will also have different fasting needs, and menstruating women will have different needs at different times in her cycle.
- A good starting point of everyone is 12-14 hours, such as dinner at 6:00pm and breakfast at 8:00am the next day.
- If you’re comfortable fasting 12-14 hours, you may consider extending your fast to 16-18 hours. This extended fasted time can have more comprehensive health benefits such as improving mood and longevity.
Always notice how you feel when you adjust your fasting time. If you feel dizzy or shaky, get a headache or start to experience problems with sleep you may need to make adjustments.
Tips to support evening fasting:
- Finish your last meal 2-3 hours before bedtime.
- Take an easy walk after dinner.
- Engage in gentle stretching and meditation before bed.
- Enjoy a warm cup of herbal tea, such as chamomile, to help you relax.
- Stay hydrated by sipping water slowly through the evening.
- Rehydrate in the morning with electrolytes or a pinch of sea salt.
Meal Timing and Snacking
Nighttime snacking breaks the fast described above, but frequent snacking between meals can also interfere with your goals. This is due to the effect on blood sugar regulation.
Snacks between meals that include carbohydrates keep blood sugar high throughout the day. Over time, this can lead to dysregulation in the way your body manages glucose. When the body doesn’t manage glucose well, it tends to promote more energy-storing behavior (fat accumulation). You may also experience big energy fluctuations throughout the day. This is the afternoon crash that has you searching for sugary or carbohydrate snacks. You may also see blood sugar markers on your labs start to rise. Learn more about Insulin response and Insulin Resistance, here.
Tips to avoid snacking between meals:
- Ensure that meals are balanced with protein, sources of fiber from vegetables and whole grains, and quality fats to keep you feeling satisfied between meals.
- Notice if snacking is a response to fatigue. Assess your sleep routine if you feel that you aren’t getting enough sleep at night.
- Notice if snacking is in response to boredom/under-stimulation. Get your body moving with a walk or a stretch. Engage in a mentally stimulating activity such as a puzzle or game.
- Make sure you’re staying hydrated with water and add a pinch of sea salt or electrolytes. You may experience more cravings for snacking when you are dehydrated.
- Plan your meals. You’ll be less likely to snack if you already know about your next meal.
Meal Timing and Exercise
Should you eat before exercise? Timing when you eat around exercise can make a significant impact on your health goals. Whether you eat before exercise will depend on a few factors, including the length and intensity of the exercise and how long since you last ate.
In general, lower intensity exercise lasting 60 minutes or less, and performed regularly can be more beneficial in a fasted state. Examples are walking, cycling, swimming, moderate weight training or gentle yoga. Adding carbohydrates before higher intensity exercise can improve your overall stamina and performance. Examples include High Intensity Interval Training, running, jump rope, hiking.
If you can, time your meals within 60 minutes after your exercise and include a protein. During exercise blood and nutrients flow to your muscles, so adding proteins after exercise will assist in repair and build. This helps you feel less sore and increases lean muscle mass.
In biology, hormesis is defined as an adaptive response to a moderate stressor. In other words, some added stress is good, but too much has a negative effect. Start slowly and support yourself with love and kindness.