One of the lesser understood but clinically useful nutrition strategies when it comes to weight, energy, mood and appetite regulation is the little known field of bio-circadian nutrition. Simply put, when we eat is often as important as what we eat. Like all aspects of nutrition science, there’s a very elegant continuum of possibilities that exists from person to person. In other words, we’re all nutritionally different, so the only true hard and fast rules are the ones that apply to your unique nutritional experience. I’d love to share with you some clinical, real world observations, along with some of the simple science behind eating rhythm. See if any of this might apply to you.
Let’s say that you wake up in the morning and decide not to eat breakfast. You figure “Well, I’m not hungry, I’ll just have some coffee, maybe a little bit of cereal or muffin or bagel. If I eat this meager amount of food until lunch I’ll be a good girl and lose weight.” But this really isn’t such a good strategy after all.
That’s because body temperature is naturally rising in the morning to prepare you for a metabolic resurgence.
In the absence of food, or in the absence of enough food, the body gets concerned. It says something like: “Hey, I thought I was preparing to raise metabolism with a morning meal. I thought my food source was abundant and dependable. There’s nothing here. I must be shipwrecked on a desert island. Or maybe there’s a famine. Better slow down metabolism, store fat and don’t build any muscle because there are lean times ahead.”
This genetically programmed survival response is a brilliant mechanism for supporting the continuation of life in times of emergency. When the brain senses trouble with the food supply, it does the most simple and impactful metabolic reprogramming to conserve energy – store fat and forget about building muscle. Just the opposite of what you’re trying to do by denying yourself food for weight loss.
To make matters worse for weight loss, many people have a breakfast that consists of one ingredient: coffee. Coffee by itself raises cortisol levels. The coffee lobby doesn’t want you to know this (I used to work for them) because this basically means that coffee can chemically mimic the stress response and cause abdominal weight gain. This doesn’t mean coffee is bad. I love coffee. It just means that when you combine lack of food (survival response – elevated cortisol), anxiety (stress response – elevated cortisol), and caffeine (mimics stress response – elevated cortisol), you have three factors that powerfully synergize to send cortisol production through the roof, suppressing digestive metabolism and depositing weight.
Again and again, we see the importance of cortisol levels in health and weight.
Cortisol isn’t a bad chemical. Its an integral component of an alive human body. Without it we couldn’t exist. In the right quantity it helps maintain the proper functioning of every major system in the body. When we overproduce cortisol, though, we age prematurely, wear down our weakest links, and gain weight around the middle.
Strangely enough, the chemicals that wreak the most havoc in our lives and prove to be the most toxic are often the ones we self-produce. That’s why the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world are busy behind the scenes perfecting home test kits so you can measure your own cortisol levels. Of course, if you find that your cortisol level is too high, you can buy whatever drug they concoct to lower it. Buy you needn’t wait for the next magic bullet to improve metabolism and lower your weight. No drug has ever worked for this purpose and none of them ever will. Just follow the inborn rhythms of the body and you’ll liberate yourself while putting the diet – pill pushers out of business forever.
Now, lets imagine its lunchtime. You’ve had your small or nonexistent breakfast and perhaps a second cup of coffee in the mid-morning. You have some energy and you don’t feel the need or the desire for a big lunch. Maybe you think you’re being good by holding back on the calories; perhaps you don’t have much time for lunch anyway, so why not grab half a sandwich, or a salad with a no-oil dressing, or have a late lunch at two or three o’clock?
If this is your strategy, what seems to be sensible is actually working against you. First, the body is designed to optimally digest and calorie burn when the sun is at its apex in the sky. This is a little known but fascinating scientific fact. By not putting fuel in the furnace at this time, or simply by not eating enough, you miss your peak metabolic window of opportunity, which is approximately 12:00 to 1:30 in the afternoon. Missing this opportunity is the equivalent of being all dressed up with no place to go. Chances are you’ll be ravenous by three or four o’clock, maybe head-achy or irritable, and grab an unhealthy snack. In other words, you’ll be suffering from arrhythmia – being out of sync with your natural circadian flow.
And by eating a tiny breakfast and minimal or late lunch, you assure major hunger in the late evening. Many people who follow this arrhythmic sequence of events find that they have a substantial snack before dinner because they’re so hungry they cant wait for their actual meal, or they’re simply ravenous in the later evening hours and eat a huge dinner. Unfortunately, our thermic efficiency – meaning our ability to burn calories – is lower in the evening. So the exact same large meal eaten at 8pm actually places more of a caloric load on the body than if you ate it at lunch. Probability wise, it’ll make you fatter.
One of the downsides of consuming a high volume of food before bed is that we miss some of the great metabolic gifts of sleep.
As you slumber at night the body shifts the bulk of its metabolic focus to maintenance, detoxification, repair, and growth of its tissues and organs. When you grow new muscle and bone, you do so as you sleep. The liver, which is our primary organ of detoxification, does the bulk of its work in the late evening and early morning hours. Sleep is not the most publicized of our metabolic activators, nor is it the sexiest, but if this rhythm isn’t fully honored we pay the price.
By consuming a big meal right before bed, much of the metabolic energy that is usually spent on maintenance, detoxification, repair, and growth is necessarily rerouted into digestion. That’s simply how the body works. Short-term survival needs take precedence over long-term ones. So with an excess of blood flow and metabolism focused on processing your meal as you sleep, you’ll most likely wake up feeling congested and heavy because you didn’t detoxify fully during the night. The period between dinner and breakfast is evolutions built in fast. That’s because the fasting state is the ideal biological milieu to rebuild the body. And that’s also why breakfast is called “break-fast” – we’re ending this necessary period with food in the morning.
So if you wake up feeling tired and toxic from eating a large, late dinner because you didn’t have real relaxed meals during the day, you’ll naturally repeat this arrhythmic pattern. You wont be hungry in the morning because your body will still be in detoxification mode when instead it should be readying itself for the metabolically stimulating activity of eating. Lunch will then feel to your body like breakfast, and dinner will be interpreted by your body as lunch-time for the biggest meal. Some time after the dinner that your body thought was lunch, you’ll be looking for “dinner” and end up having a late-night snack.
Oftentimes you’ll hear nutritionists recommend that you eat your evening meal about four hours before bedtime. A four-hour time period is sufficient for most people to metabolize a meal. You will then go to bed without raising your body temperature; through the metabolic effect of food, thus increasing your probability of restful sleep. You’ll also do what you were meant to do while laying in bed – healing, detoxifying, rebuilding, and so fourth-without sidetracking vital metabolic force into digestion.
To accomplish this, you may need to retrain your body and reorient your lifestyle. Focus on having a smaller and earlier dinner and have a more robust breakfast. Eating a relaxed, sane, sensuous lunch makes it easier to have a lighter dinner.
These are but a few of the nutritional tricks you can experiment with to see if they work for you, your body, your weight, and your style of living. Experiment. Be curious. Be a scientist of your own body. Be willing to make a few mistakes, and have a few successes. And of course, I’d love to hear your thoughts and insights about the dance of nutrition and rhythm in your own professional practice or personal experience.
My warmest regards,
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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