We hear that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, we have lunch breaks at work, and our social and family life revolves around dinner. But is this the healthiest way to eat?
Before considering how often we should eat, scientists encourage us to think about when we shouldn’t eat.
Intermittent fasting, where you restrict your food intake to an eight-hour window, is becoming a big area of research.
Leaving our bodies at least 12 hours a day without food allows our digestive system to rest, explains Emily Manoogian, clinical researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, author of a 2019 paper titled When to eat. .
Rozalyn Anderson, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, has studied the benefits of calorie restriction, which is associated with lower levels of inflammation in the body.
“By doing a period of fasting every day, you can reap some of these benefits,” she says.
“It’s the idea that fasting puts the body in a different state where it’s more prepared to repair and monitor damage and eliminate misfolded proteins.”
Misfolded proteins are faulty versions of common proteins, which are molecules that perform a huge variety of important functions in the body. Misfolded proteins have been linked to a number of diseases.
Intermittent fasting is more in line with how our bodies have evolved, argues Anderson.
According to her, it offers the body a break so that it is able to store food and take energy to where it needs to go, triggering the mechanism to release energy from our body’s reserves.
Condensing our food into a shorter window of the day can have health benefits if practiced safely, researchers say — Photo: Getty Images
Fasting can also improve our glycemic response, which is when our blood glucose spikes after eating, notes Antonio Paoli, professor of exercise and sport science at the University of Padua in Italy.
Having a smaller rise in blood glucose allows you to store less fat in your body, he said.
“Our data suggest that having an early dinner and increasing the length of your fasting window increases some positive effects on the body, such as better glycemic control,” says Paoli.
It’s better for all cells to have lower levels of sugar because of a process called glycation, he adds.
This is when glucose binds to proteins and forms compounds called “advanced glycation end products,” which can cause inflammation in the body and increase the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.
But if intermittent fasting is a healthy way to eat — does it leave room for how many meals?
Some experts argue that it’s better to eat one meal a day, including David Levitsky, a professor at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology in New York, who adopts this habit.
Some people think eating just one meal a day is better for the body and health — Photo: Getty Images
“There’s a lot of data showing that if I show you food or pictures of food, you’re probably going to eat it, and the more food in front of you, the more you’re going to eat that day,” he says.
This is because, before we had refrigerators and supermarkets, we ate when food was available.
Throughout history, we’ve had one meal a day, including the ancient Romans who had a meal around noon, says food historian Seren Charrington-Hollins.
Wouldn’t one meal a day make us hungry? Not necessarily, argues Levitsky, because hunger is often a psychological sensation.
“When the clock strikes 12, we might feel like eating, or you might be conditioned to eat breakfast in the morning, but that doesn’t make sense. The data shows that if you skip breakfast, you’ll consume fewer calories than a general way that day.”
“Our physiology was developed for feasting and fasting,” he says. However, Levitsky does not recommend this approach for people with diabetes.
But Manoogan doesn’t advise sticking to one meal a day, as it can raise your blood glucose level when you’re not eating — your fasting blood sugar.
High fasting blood glucose levels over a long period of time is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
Keeping blood glucose levels low requires eating more regularly than once a day, explains Manoogan, as it prevents the body from thinking it’s starving and releasing more glucose when you finally eat in response.
Instead, she says, two to three meals a day is best — most calories being consumed earlier in the day.
This is because eating late at night is associated with cardiometabolic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease.
“If you eat most of your food earlier, your body can use the energy you consume throughout the day instead of it being stored in your system as fat,” explains Manoogan.
But eating too early in the morning should also be avoided, she says, as it wouldn’t give you enough time to fast.
Plus, eating too early after waking up works against our circadian rhythm — better known as our biological clock — which researchers say dictates how the body processes food differently throughout the day.
Our bodies release melatonin at night to help us sleep — but melatonin also inhibits the secretion of insulin, the hormone that controls blood glucose.
“If you eat calories when your melatonin is high, you get very high glucose levels. Consuming a lot of calories at night poses a significant challenge to the body, because if insulin is suppressed, your body cannot store glucose properly.”
And, as we know, high glucose levels for long periods of time can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
This doesn’t mean we should skip breakfast altogether, but some evidence suggests we should wait an hour or two after waking up to set the table.
It is also worth remembering that breakfast as we know (and love) today is a relatively new concept.
“The ancient Greeks were the first to introduce the concept of breakfast, they would eat bread soaked in wine, then have a frugal lunch, followed by a hearty evening meal,” says Charrington-Hollins.
And, according to her, breakfast was initially exclusive to the aristocratic classes.
It was first adopted in the 17th century when it became a luxury for those who could afford the food and time for a leisurely morning meal.
“The concept today of breakfast being the norm [surgiu] during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century and the introduction of working hours”, explains Charrington-Hollins. This routine lends itself to three meals a day.
“The first meal would be something quite simple for the working classes — it could be street food from a street vendor or bread.”
But after the war, when the food supply dwindled, the idea of having a full breakfast was not possible — and many people skipped this meal.
“The three-meal-a-day idea has gone down the drain,” says Charrington-Hollins.
“In the 1950s, breakfast became what we know today: cereal and toast. Before that, we would have been happy to have a piece of bread and jam.”
So science seems to say that the healthiest way to eat throughout the day is to eat two or three meals, with a long fasting window overnight, not eat too early, not too late, and consume more calories early in the day. day. But is this realistic?
Manoogan says it’s best not to specify the best times to eat, as it can be difficult for people with responsibilities and appointments at irregular hours, such as those who work the night shift.
“Telling people to stop eating at 7pm doesn’t help because people have different schedules. If you try to give your body regular fast nights, try not to eat too late or too early and try not to eat big meals later in the day, it usually helps. People can at least adopt parts of it,” she says.
“You can see a dramatic change just by delaying your first meal a little and moving your last meal forward. Making it a habit without changing anything else can have a big impact.”
But whatever changes you adopt, the researchers agree that consistency is crucial.
“The body works in patterns,” explains Anderson.
“We respond to the expectation of being fed. One thing intermittent fasting does is impose a pattern, and our biological systems do well with patterns.”
She says the body picks up signals to anticipate our eating behaviors so it’s better able to handle food when we consume it.
When it comes to how many meals we consider normal, Charrington-Hollins sees change ahead.
“Over the centuries, we’ve been conditioned to three meals a day, but that’s being challenged now, and people’s attitude to food is changing. We have more relaxed lifestyles, we don’t have the same level of work we did in 19th century, so we need fewer calories.”
“I think in the long run, we’re going to cut back to a light meal and then a main meal, depending on what happens at work. Our working hours will be the driving force.”
“When the rationing ended, we adopted three meals a day because suddenly there was an abundance of food. But time passes — and food is everywhere now.”