“Light” Eating: Research Mounts for a Circadian Diet 

Earlier this year, we named a new focus on circadian health a major trend in wellness because the medical research just kept confirming the ways that our magnificent, light-timed circadian rhythms control almost every system in our bodies: from our sleep/wake cycles to our immune and metabolic systems. Refocusing on circadian health means putting the timing of light and biology at the center of human health.
One sub-trend we identified was the mounting evidence for adopting a “circadian diet,” or eating when it’s light and stopping after dark, as humans evolved to digest food during the day. While intermittent fasting has been the rage, more studies were confirming that it wasn’t the random 12–14 hours of not eating that was the lynchpin for weight loss and metabolic health, but the fact that the hours of eating and not eating were synched to the sun’s (and hence the body’s) 24-hour clock. We revisit the circadian diet trend because, in the last few months, the studies are really rolling in (examples below) on how eating earlier in the day (breakfast is key) flips the switch on fat burning and significantly regulates blood glucose.
We also revisit this trend because if our circadian clocks were whacked pre-COVID, now everything is conspiring to whack them out further. Thrust into work-from-home, our lives have undergone a historic un-structuring: The line between “work” and “ life” is dissolved, regular meals have given way to 24-hour grazing from our overstocked fridges, and at-home alcohol consumption (a circadian “whacker”) is surging. People joke about the “COVID 15” weight gains, but with a long stay and work at home future ahead, the circadian rhythm and eating schedule disruptions will likely have serious health consequences: collective weight gain, rising diabetes, sleeplessness and mental health issues.
The pandemic will further expose the health costs of circadian disruptions and the importance of chrono-nutrition. We need employers to create firm boundaries between work and life, day and night, and support time taken for meals; we need solutions to help us humans know when to take in light and dark, when to eat, when to exercise, and when to sleep. With the pandemic and the rising medical evidence, a “circadian diet” becomes even more important in the future.

This is inspired by the “Focus Shifts from Sleep to True Circadian Health” trend in the 2020 Global Wellness Trends Report.

Summit Trend in the News

Is body weight affected by when you eat?Inverse

A clearheaded overview of the current medical research on how the timing of eating impacts weight, by researchers at the University of Aberdeen. Their new meta-review of studies concludes that it’s “clear that our bodies do indeed prefer us to eat during daylight hours...

Intermittent fasting works best at night to burn fatFuturity
A recent study from Vanderbilt University tested two different mealtime routines: Both groups ate three daily meals with the same calories, but one group ate breakfast and the other a late-evening snack. They found that late-evening snacking delayed the body’s ability to target fat stores and instead caused the body to target carbs. 
Study finds what you eat is linked to when you eatMedical News Today
A study presented this month at the European and International Conference on Obesity found that people who consumed most of their calories (energy intake) early in the day (versus those that ate most of their calories during evening hours) consumed significantly fewer calories overall.
Eating an early dinner can help you burn fat, lower your blood sugarHealthline

A randomized controlled trial from Johns Hopkins University in June set out to find out exactly how people metabolized dinner if it was eaten at 6 PM versus 10 PM. All participants ate the same meal and went to bed at 11 PM, but those who ate the late dinner had peak blood sugar levels almost 20% higher and fat burning reduced by 10%, compared with those who ate dinner at 6 PM.

Forecasting the Future

  • If COVID-19 is an opportunity to rethink the future, and with the “bad timing” of light, biology and eating as a proven driver of obesity, diabetes, cancers, heart disease, depression, gut disorders, infections and early death, we need to rethink (as hard as it is) our love of our 24/7 calorie-intake culture: always-on supermarkets, restaurants and bars and the surge in all-day-and-night food delivery.
  • Humans are horrible at managing the things that keep our circadian rhythms in sync: when to sleep and eat and exercise and not. Each person has a different chronobiome: Some of us are hardwired genetically to be night owls (with a longer clock), teenagers have a clock two hours ahead, and the reality is most of us have different life/work schedules. Scientists are working on tests (saliva, breath, blood) that will be able to measure people’s unique circadian clock state in real-time, so we will be able to more precisely time “our lives.” Wearables and phone apps could then guide us on when to take in sun and dark and when to eat, sleep and exercise, and they could help reset us after life’s unavoidable, endless circadian disruptions. These would be breakthrough solutions—and they’re ahead.
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