Study: Midnight munching hurts health

Eva Frederick

Forget breakfast, lunch and dinner. During the stressful end-of-semester scramble, students often turn to a mixture of between-class snacks and midnight meals. But new research shows that this erratic eating schedule is far from healthy.

Most people don’t have a regular eating schedule and instead eat frequently over more than 15 hours a day, according to a 2015 study by researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.  Irregular eating patterns, including not having consistent meal times or eating late into the night, can affect health, metabolism and circadian rhythm.

Molly Bray, the chair of UTs Department of Nutritional Sciences, said the body’s circadian rhythm is dependent on internal clocks, which can be “set” by different factors such as food and light.

“Constant eating throughout the day has the potential to mess up that setting and disrupt local, peripheral kinds of clocks,” Bray said. “Late eating [in particular] is associated with increased weight gain and disruptions in circadian rhythm.”

Despite the known problems caused by irregular eating and skipping meals, college students may have a hard time working meals into their schedules, especially with study sessions, meetings and classes that can go straight through lunch.

According to University Health Services recommendations, eating five to six times a day is ideal. This should be in the form of three regular meals with small snacks in between, but this is not always possible in the face of an awkward block schedule.

Bray said even when students don’t have the luxury of a regular eating schedule, they can take some measures to eat in a way that doesn’t disrupt their circadian rhythm. She especially stressed the importance of setting the body’s circadian clocks in the morning with a good breakfast that contains fat and protein.

“If you’re fasting all night long and you start the day with a meal and light, that is the strongest way to start your clocks,” Bray said. “The old adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day — that’s really been shown with a whole wide variety of human and animal studies.”

If students have a long day and they have to eat late, Bray recommends they should plan their caloric intake to be higher earlier in the day. Another way students can make sure they eat regularly is to try and keep their waking times constant and eat breakfast at the same time each day, even on weekends. The study recommends that eating times be kept within one hour of normal week eating times.

In the study, the researchers used an app to track the food that people ate throughout the day, plotting eating times and amounts. The study showed people ate the most calories in the afternoon and evening.

People often began eating in the morning and continued late into the night, consuming over 37 percent of their calories after 6 p.m. They ate less than 25 percent of their calories before noon.

The data showed no consistent meal times and instead suggested people eat many small things over a long period of time. Over half of the adults in the study ate frequently for 15 hours a day. Eating patterns also change over the weekends, leading to a condition called “metabolic jetlag,” where the body struggles to adapt to a large change in eating times caused by sleeping late.

To explore the effect of eating time on health, the scientists conducted another experiment in which they monitored people’s response to different eating time durations. These effects had been researched on mice but not in humans.

In this experiment, a sample group of overweight people ate within 10 and 11 hours each day, a four to five hour cutback from their normal 15-hour eating window. Participants who had breakfast at 8 a.m. would have to eat all of their meals and snacks before 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. People who ate within the 10 to 11-hour window slept better, felt more energized and also lost an average of 3.7 pounds over three weeks.

These results showed that even though keeping regular eating times can be tough, it can be worth it to put in the extra effort. People can benefit from a shorter, smarter eating schedule.