Chrononutrition: How your meal schedules affect your health

Most of us are aware that our nutrition has a significant impact on our health. Fruits and vegetables are good. Processed foods, on the other hand, are not. We understand how meals affect our bodies, both positively and negatively.

And recently, scientists are discovering that when you eat can also make a difference. According to new research, when you eat can help not just with weight loss but also with disease prevention. The term for this is called chrononutrition.

What is Chrononutrition?

Chrononutrition is the science of how food, metabolism, meal timing, and your body clock interact. Many aspects of your physiology are influenced by your circadian rhythm, including digestion, hunger, and metabolism.

“It’s all about the timing of eating,” John Hawley, PhD, director of the Exercise and Nutrition Research Program at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. “It’s about the when, rather than the what.”

Food and your body clock have a two-way relationship: your circadian rhythms influence how your body handles food at different times of day, but eating also helps train your body clock, albeit to a lesser extent than light. Therefore, you have to figure out how you can align these two. 

“It is thought that aligning your meals with your circadian rhythm may be associated with various health improvements, including reduced risk for chronic disease like diabetes and hypertension,” said Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. 

What is the best meal schedule for good health?

According to research, it’s best to consume the majority of your calories earlier in the day rather than later — for example, by eating a large breakfast, a moderate lunch, and a small dinner to maximise chrononutrition.

This eating pattern corresponds to our circadian rhythms, the innate 24-hour clock that governs many aspects of our health, including our daily hormonal fluctuations and body temperatures, as well as our sleep-wake cycles.

Our bodies are also primed to digest and metabolise food early in the day due to the way our internal clocks work, and our metabolism become less efficient as the day progresses.

In terms of chrononutrition schedule, doctors say that a meal eaten at 9 a.m. can have drastically different metabolic effects than the same meal eaten at 9 p.m.

When is the best time to eat breakfast?

To begin with, the best time for chrononutrition is determined by your body’s circadian rhythm — a complex system governed by the sun’s light and dark cycles. This internal clock influences your hormones, digestion, and other bodily functions. It makes sense when you think about it. Earlier in the day, when most of us are more active, your body is more efficient at metabolising food.

Other research sheds light on the advantages of eating breakfast. A study of 10,575 adults discovered that those who ate breakfast before 8:30 a.m. — had lower blood sugar levels and less insulin resistance-factors associated with a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes — than those who ate later.

Furthermore, eating a high-protein breakfast first thing in the morning—think eggs, lean pork sausage, Greek yoghurt, or nut butter—has been linked to lower rates of weight gain, according to research. Yes, weight loss is also one of the benefits of chrononutrition!

When is the best time to eat lunch?

Most of us are guilty of skipping lunch, particularly when working or running errands outside. The ringing phone, email notifications, and looming deadlines may tempt you to postpone lunch, but doing so may cause you to overeat or make less healthy choices.

While there are fewer studies on lunch timing than there are on breakfast and dinner timing, the studies that do exist all point to the same conclusion: earlier is better for chrononutrition.

In one small study, healthy adults were subjected to four protocols: a 12 p.m. Lunch will be served at 12 p.m., late lunch, followed by a standardised meal (early or late) and an apple. 

The chrononutrition timing was critical. People had significantly higher peak post-meal glucose, lower insulin sensitivity, and an increase in insulin resistance after the late lunch. Meanwhile, late lunch eaters had larger blood sugar swings the next day compared to early lunch eaters.

When is the best time to eat dinner?

A 2022 study discovered that late eaters had a slower calorie burn and changes in their fat metabolism that promote fat storage when compared to early eaters. Simultaneously, their hunger hormones were disrupted, causing them to be hungrier and have delayed fullness due to imbalanced chrononutrition.

With regards to the schedule, the best time to eat dinner for maximised chrononutrition is at 6:00 p.m. There’s another small study that included participants eating dinner at 6:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. and then switching the conditions. The researchers discovered that people who ate earlier had better blood sugar regulation and fat metabolism, which is a factor in fat storage.

Here’s another benefit of chrononutrition. Eating an earlier dinner and avoiding late-night snacking while binge-watching your favourite shows may also aid in your sleep.

Eat the right food, at the right time

Mealtimes and digestion interact with natural bodily processes such as circadian rhythm for chrononutrition. The timing that avoids disrupting these other processes tends to produce better health outcomes. When paired with exercise, a balanced diet and consistent rest, your body’ will surely be healthy and protected against diseases.

As they say, timing is everything. And there is some truth to this, at least when it comes to eating and chrononutrition. Even if you only eat during the day, it’s critical that you eat nutritious foods. In other words, what you eat—and how much you eat—still matters most.