When You Eat May Be as Important as What You Eat


There are many things you can do to boost heart health, like limiting salt, avoiding high-fat foods, and eating plenty of fruits and veggies to name a few. But paying attention to your heart health isn’t just about what you eat. According to a new Scientific Statement, paying attention to how often you eat and at what time of day can lower the risk of heart attacks and stroke.  

The recommendation comes from various committees of the American Heart Association who reviewed all past studies on how often and when people eat. The panel, led by Marie-Pierre St-Onge of Columbia University, firstly supports existing advice on the benefits of eating breakfast.

Credit: Clemens v. Vogelsang/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

We’re all familiar with the saying ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day,’ but what you may not know is how it supports heart health. When comparing breakfast-eaters to non-breakfast-eaters, the panel found those who ate breakfast had lower rates of heart disease. They were also less likely to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Blood sugar levels also tended to be more normal amongst breakfast-eaters, meaning they were at a lower risk of diabetes than their non-breakfast-eating counterparts.

However, that doesn’t mean people who don’t eat breakfast should start, or that those who already do will never experience heart issues or develop diabetes. The existing research simply isn’t strong enough to make those claims.

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But what about how often you eat? It’s a common belief that eating five or six small meals throughout the day is better than three larger meals. However, the data on eating more frequently throughout the day isn’t entirely clear.

While past observational studies suggest that people who eat more often have lower cholesterol and lowered risk of diabetes, the results are unclear as to whether eating small meals throughout the day contributes to weight loss. Other studies that closely monitored exactly what people ate showed that frequent meals don’t necessarily lower the risk of heart disease or obesity.

Lastly, the panel addressed the question of whether eating earlier in the day versus later in the day affects heart health. Research suggests that eating earlier meals has stronger benefits. While more studies are needed, St-Onge says the initial findings make sense. 

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The findings go hand-in-hand with growing evidence that metabolism functions differently during the day when the body is active, as opposed to at night when it’s winding down.

“The body and all of the organs have clocks,” St-Onge explains. “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.”

More research is needed to fully understand how the timing and frequency of meals impacts your health. That said, it’s not a bad idea to keep enjoying breakfast and finish your last meal of the day earlier rather than later.