• Researchers report that eating the first and last meals of the day earlier can help prevent heart disease.
  • They said that eating the first meal of the day before 8 a.m. and the last before 9 p.m. can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • They add that the reduction in risk is more significant in women than in men.

Eating meals earlier can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications.

In their study, researchers looked at data from 103,389 adults with a median age of 42 who participated in the NutriNet-Santé study.

Medical records were obtained via the UK Biobank database. Dietary records provided information on meal timing and the number of times someone ate during 24 hours. The study had an average follow-up time of about 7 years.

During the study period, there were 2,036 cases of cardiovascular disease. This broke down as follows:

The researchers observed the following findings associated with meal timings between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.:

  • Delaying the day’s first meal was associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Each additional hour of delay was associated with an 6% increase in cerebrovascular disease.
  • Eating a last meal of the day after 9 p.m. was associated with a 28% higher risk of cerebrovascular disease than those who ate before 8 p.m.
  • No significant additional risk was associated with the number of times someone ate.
  • Each additional hour of nighttime fasting (eating an earlier evening meal rather than delaying breakfast) was associated with a 7% lower risk of cerebrovascular disease.

The researchers added that the differences in negative associations in the timing of the day’s last meal were more significant in women than in men.

“Research shows that your body’s ability to burn calories and regulate your appetite is linked to your circadian rhythms,” said Tatiana Ridley, a health coach, holistic nutritionist, and yoga teacher who was not involved in the study.

“Circadian rhythms are cyclic endogenous (built-in) biological patterns that follow a 24-hour cycle that regulates the timing of physiology, metabolism, and behavior,” she explained to Medical News Today. “When your mealtimes don’t match your body clock, it may spike fat-storing hormones, causing weight gain. There’s a Circadian Rhythm Diet based on the ideal times to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner.That being said, I think that timing of eating should be considered in relation to our overall health.”

The researchers noted that these results support the idea that eating first and last meals earlier with a longer period of nighttime fasting could help prevent the risk of cardiovascular disease.

“Fasting is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Caroline Thomason, RD, CDES, a dietician and diabetes educator based in Virginia who was not involved in the study.

“I do find that some folks naturally do not feel hungry for breakfast, for example. As long as someone doesn’t have negative repercussions, such as overeating at night because they skipped breakfast, fasting is an acceptable way to approach your eating times,” she told Medical News Today.

“The number one caution I give to my patients is to be aware of when they are pushing through uncomfortable or intense hunger/low energy just for the sake of eating by the clock,” Thomason added. “Some research even shows that skipping breakfast can raise cortisol and increase how stressed we feel, so for folks who naturally don’t enjoy skipping their first meal, I would not recommend it.”

With intermittent fasting, you restrict eating to certain times of the day. The idea behind this plan is that by doing so, our bodies will more quickly and efficiently tap our fat stores for energy, according to UC Davis Health.

Glucose and carbohydrates are the most direct sources of energy, but when glucose isn’t available, we burn fat.

The researchers suggest that the final meal of the day be no later than 8 pm and the first by 8 a.m. Although they did not specifically say intermittent fasting, not eating for 12 hours is one variation of this approach.

“Several studies over the years have found that time-restricted eating (AKA intermittent fasting) has metabolic benefits, specifically insulin, blood sugar, cholesterol levels, and weight improvements,” said Anne Danahy, a registered dietitian nutritionist who was not involved in the study. “It’s great to see that the results of this very large study also show a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke.”

“I often recommend fasting for at least 8 to 10 hours each day,” Danahy told Medical News Today. “It’s as simple as not eating after dinner and many are surprised at how well that one little change works and makes them feel. An 8 to 10-hour fast is an easy way to rein in excess calories that add up from late-night snacking. It often leads to better blood sugar control and a bit of weight loss. Many people also find that they sleep better if they don’t eat late at night (it reduces acid reflux), and better sleep can contribute to metabolic improvements.”

“It’s important to note that many studies (this one included) show bigger benefits from having dinner earlier and leaving a longer fasting window later in the day and overnight, Danahy added. “I agree with that, but it’s hard for many people to do because of work and family schedules. A good solution is to front-load your diet by eating a large breakfast and lunch, having something light (a smoothie, a small serving of protein with vegetables, or soup) for dinner, and trying to wrap up your eating by 7 p.m. at the latest.”

“And of course, the quality of your diet is important too,” she said. “You won’t see the benefits if you’re following a strict eating-fasting schedule but eating lots of junk food. Ideally, try to eat a Mediterranean-style or plant-forward diet and let your body rest and reset between dinner and breakfast the next day.”

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