Cutting back on salt, high fat foods and too many breads and pasta, and eating more fruits and vegetables is the best way to a healthy heart. But eating well isn’t just about what you eat, say heart experts, but about when you eat.
In a new Scientific Statement, experts from various committees of the American Heart Association say that paying attention to how often you eat, and at what time of the day you eat, can help to lower risk of heart attacks and stroke.
The panel reviewed all of the available studies on how often and when people eat. Based on what’s known so far, the panel, led by Marie-Pierre St-Onge, an associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University, supports existing advice about the benefits of breakfast. That advice is based on studies that compare breakfast-eaters to non-eaters and their heart disease events. Breakfast-eaters tend to have lower rates of heart disease, and were also less likely to have high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. They also tended to have more normal blood sugar levels and sugar metabolism, meaning they were at lower risk of diabetes than those who didn’t eat breakfast. Still, the existing research isn’t strong enough yet to say that people who don’t normally eat breakfast should start—or that people who already do should expect to be heart-disease and diabetes-free for the rest of their lives.
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The data isn’t so clear on the benefits of eating more frequently during day. While some observational studies that ask people about their meal habits suggest that people who eat more often have lower cholesterol and reduced risk of diabetes, the data is more mixed on whether eating smaller meals more often can help with weight loss. And the controlled studies that more rigorously tracked exactly what people ate found that more frequent eating, even if the total number of calories was kept constant, may not be beneficial for lowering heart disease risk or obesity.
Finally, on the question of what effects eating earlier in the day or later in the day can have on heart health, the panel found that the research points toward the benefits of eating earlier rather than later. More studies are needed but the initial finding makes sense, says St-Onge. The more calories you eat during the day, the more chances you have of burning off those calories.
Plus, there’s growing evidence that the body’s metabolism is different during the day, when the body is active, than during the evening, when it’s preparing to shut down. “The body and all of the organs have clocks,” she says. “There is a timing that provide all the nutrients that organs need, and the timing activity of enzymes and other agents that process food are better earlier in the day than at night.”
So while more research is certainly needed to better understand how the timing and frequency of how meals affect your health, it wouldn’t hurt to keep eating breakfast (if you already do) and try to space your meals earlier in the day.