Daily (circadian) rhythms coordinate our physiology and behaviour with regular environmental changes. Molecular clocks in peripheral tissues (e.g. liver, skeletal muscle and adipose) give rise to rhythms in macronutrient metabolism, appetite regulation and the components of energy balance such that our bodies can align the periodic delivery of nutrients with ongoing metabolic requirements. The timing of meals both in absolute terms (i.e. relative to clock time) and in relative terms (i.e. relative to other daily events) is therefore relevant to metabolism and health. Experimental manipulation of feeding–fasting cycles can advance understanding of the effect of absolute and relative timing of meals on metabolism and health. Such studies have extended the overnight fast by regular breakfast omission and revealed that morning fasting can alter the metabolic response to subsequent meals later in the day, whilst also eliciting compensatory behavioural responses (i.e. reduced physical activity). Similarly, restricting energy intake via alternate-day fasting also has the potential to elicit a compensatory reduction in physical activity, and so can undermine weight-loss efforts (i.e. to preserve body fat stores). Interrupting the usual overnight fast (and therefore also the usual sleep cycle) by nocturnal feeding has also been examined and further research is needed to understand the importance of this period for either nutritional intervention or nutritional withdrawal. In summary, it is important for dietary guidelines for human health to consider nutrient timing (i.e. when we eat) alongside the conventional focus on nutrient quantity and nutrient quality (i.e. how much we eat and what we eat).
- meal timing
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