One of the most astonishing discoveries weight-loss researchers have made in recent years is that when we eat might be just as important as what we eat. Over the past few years, numerous studies have suggested that if you eat the majority of your calories earlier in the day, you can end up losing more weight than if you eat those same calories later on and into the evening.
Scientists now know that the times of the day we choose to eat, and how often, can have a significant effect on how much weight we put on. This is because the timing and frequency of our food affects the working of our signals.
How snacking disrupts the body’s signals
One reason obesity has been soaring over the last few decades is that we’ve dramatically increased how frequently we’re putting fuel into our systems. Back in the 1970s, most of us ate just three meals per day. But things are very different now.
Our store-fat signals are influenced by the hormone insulin. Whenever we eat, insulin is released, which informs our body that fuel has become available. It instructs the body not to break down the fat it already has on board. So if you’re eating small meals and snacks multiple times a day (especially if they are highly processed), your body is being flooded with regular releases of insulin, which means it is never being allowed to break its own energy stores down and is constantly stuck in the store-fat mode. Essentially, you are never giving your body enough of a break from food to allow it to start burning off your existing fat stores.
We’re not designed to be digesting food all day long. This is why reducing the hours in which we eat to a limited window can be a great idea. In 2018, one set of scientists compared a group of people who ate their meals over an entire day with those who ate all their meals within just eight hours. Remarkably, at the end of eight weeks, the second group, who did all their eating inside a compressed time window, showed a marked reduction in fat, even though the amount of calories eaten was the same between each group.
Rather than changing what they ate, they changed when they ate. Time-restricted eating has proved to be an effective strategy with plenty of my patients, readers and podcast listeners. Many prefer to start off with a 12-hour window (for example, eating between 8am and 8pm), which should be manageable for most, and then move it down to 10 or eight hours. My clinical experience has shown that, in isolation, it may not work for everyone when it comes to losing weight, but I would strongly encourage you to at least go for the 12-hour window. Let’s not forget, this was probably the norm for everyone on Earth as recently as 50 years ago. It’s only because our eating habits have changed so much that we’ve had to give a special name to what’s been a normal part of the human routine forever.