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When and How Often Should You Eat?

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When and How Often Should You Eat?

Many health experts of our day recommend eating three meals a day plus snacks. This amounts to five or six meals each day, or a day filled with constant eating or nibbling. We’re told that many small meals throughout the day will raise our metabolism and help us maintain proper weight.


However, 40% of adults around the world suffer from functional gastrointestinal problems,and worldwide obesity has tripled since 1975, with more than half of adults either overweight or obese.2 Could constant eating be part of the problem?


Ellen White, a 19th century Christian author advised against eating between meals and at irregular times. Her statements not only oppose many of the experts of today but went against the tide of thought in the 19th century as well. Recent studies, however, confirm her recommendations and interest is gaining in what many call intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating, an eating pattern that encompasses White’s recommendations. A growing body of studies shows that eating two or three regularly spaced meals, with several hours between the last meal and bedtime, has many health benefits. These include better weight management and reduced risk of disease.


Circadian Rhythm Eating: Following Your Body’s Internal Clock

Researchers suggest that many of these benefits appear to be a result of the regulatory effects of the body’s internal clock. Well-timed meals, with fasting periods between, support the body’s circadian rhythms, while frequent, irregular meals appear to conflict with these and could result in greater inflammation, disruption of gut microbiota, and reduced disease resistance.3


Although clinical studies of the long-term effects of this style of eating are still forthcoming, a couple of population groups typically practice intermittent fasting as a way of life. One of these are residents of the island of Okinawa in Japan. Traditional Okinawans are known for their low rates of obesity and disease, and great longevity. In addition to eating a mostly plant-based diet, they typically eat few, regularly spaced meals with periods of fasting between.4






Another group known for robust health and long life are Seventh-day Adventists who apply the health principles that Ellen White wrote about. These Adventists enjoy a lifespan that is eight to ten years longer than the average for other Americans.5 Like the Okinawans, this group eats a plant-based diet and practices the kind of intermittent fasting recommended by Ellen White. A maxim that typifies the time-restricted eating pattern she promoted goes like this: Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and supper like a pauper.



Eat at Regular Times

Not that many generations ago, most families gathered around the table at regular meal times. Then as now, working schedules impacted family meals, but for generations, traditional mealtimes were firmly set in North American society. Breakfast was usually around 7:00, lunch was at noon, and supper or dinner was about 6:00 pm. 


The massive societal upheavals of the last century have drastically affected meal routines. And today, few families enjoy regular meals together on a daily basis. Busy schedules, fast food restaurants, and microwave-ready foods have made eating an irregular, grab-and-go affair. For most families, fixed mealtimes are a thing of the past. 


However, 19th-century health advocate Ellen White emphasized the importance of eating at regular times. She wrote:


In no case should the meals be irregular. If dinner is eaten an hour or two before the usual time, the stomach is unprepared for the new burden; for it has not yet disposed of the food eaten at the previous meal, and has not vital force for new work. Thus the whole system is overtaxed.


Neither should the meals be delayed one or two hours, to suit circumstances, or in order that a certain amount of work may be accomplished. The stomach calls for food at the same time it is accustomed to receive it. If that time is delayed, the vitality of the system is decreased, and finally reaches so low an ebb that the appetite is entirely gone. If food is then taken, the stomach is unable to properly care for it. The food cannot be converted into good blood.


If all would eat at regular periods, not tasting anything between meals, they would be ready for their meals, and would find a pleasure in eating that would repay them for their effort. . . .


Regularity in eating is of vital importance. There should be a specified time for each meal. At this time, let every one eat what the system requires, and then take nothing more until the next meal. There are many who eat when the system needs no food, at irregular intervals, and between meals, because they have not sufficient strength of will to resist inclination. When travelling, some are constantly nibbling if anything eatable is within their reach. This is very injurious. If travelers would eat regularly of food that is simple and nutritious, they would not feel so great weariness, nor suffer so much from sickness.


Regularity in eating should be carefully observed. Nothing should be eaten between meals, no confectionery, nuts, fruits, or food of any kind. Irregularities in eating decrease the healthful tone of the digestive organs, to the detriment of health and cheerfulness. And when the children come to the table, they do not relish wholesome food; their appetites crave that which is hurtful for them.6


Today, we have a better understanding of why eating at regular times is so important and it has to do with synchronizing our activities with our internal clock.The body’s master clock is in a small region called the hypothalamus located deep within the brain. The master clock is set to the 24-hour light/dark cycle and coordinates the biological clocks within our tissues and organs. In other words, the work done by the different systems, organs and tissues of the body follows interconnected schedules. Eating and fasting are the main cues that affect these schedules. Science has discovered that eating at inappropriate times disrupts circadian system organization, contributing to metabolic consequences and chronic disease development.7 In addition, obesity is associated with inconsistent eating times.8







How Many Hours Between Meals? 

Many nutrition experts make recommendations such as this: “Eating every 2-3 hours maintains body processes and metabolism remains intact.”9 Almost 150 years ago, however, Ellen White wrote:


After the regular meal is eaten, the stomach should be allowed to rest for five hours. Not a particle of food should be introduced into the stomach until the next meal. In this interval, the stomach will perform its work, and will then be in a condition to receive more food.10


Recent science has revealed that fasting is essential not only for the health of the digestive system, but of the whole body. Fasting between meals affects the body at a cellular level, promoting protective defenses and stimulating repair and healing functions. Some of these activities include the stimulation of antioxidant defenses which protect cells and tissues from damage by free radicals, the facilitation of DNA repair, and a reduction of inflammation.11 This may help to explain why intermittent fasting is helpful in inflammation-related diseases such as asthma, multiple sclerosis, and arthritis.12




The Timing of Meals and Brain Health


Can when we eat affect our mental health? Definitely. Every system in the body is controlled by synchronized schedules that are set to an internal clock. The production and release of hormones, the repair of damaged cells and tissues, muscle and bone growth, the filing and storage of information in the brain, and countless other bodily functions occur at regularly scheduled times. It’s not surprising, then, that when we eat can affect how we feel and think.


The relationship between food and mood has been assumed for some time. For example, the word “dyspeptic” which first appeared at the beginning of the 18th century, reveals that people believed there was a connection between food and mood. From its Greek word parts, “dys-peptic” literally means “badly digested,” but the word is typically used to describe people who are irritable and bad-tempered. How can poor digestion lead to irritability? Once again, it has to do with the internal clock.


Children are especially prone to emotional/behavioral instability due to unregulated eating because of how it affects the body’s circadian rhythms, the 24-hour cycles that govern cellular and glandular functions. Ellen White gave these insights about the effects of frequent eating on children. 


Children are generally untaught in regard to the importance of when, how, and what they should eat. They are permitted to indulge their tastes freely, to eat at all hours, to help themselves to fruit when it tempts their eyes, and this, with the pie, cake, bread and butter, and sweetmeats eaten almost constantly, makes them gourmands [those who love food and tend to overeat] and dyspeptics [those who have indigestion and irritability]. 









The digestive organs, like a mill which is continually kept running, becomes enfeebled. Vital force is called from the brain to aid the stomach in its overwork, and thus the mental powers are weakened. The unnatural stimulation and wear of the vital forces make them nervous, impatient of restraint, self-willed and irritable.13



In recent years, much research has been done exploring the connection between the digestive system and the brain. The “gut-brain axis” is the back-and-forth communication that goes on between the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain and the digestive system, a primary component of which is the gut microbiota, all the beneficial microorganisms that live in the gastrointestinal tract.


Studies have shown that the frequency of meals affects the balance of microbes in the digestive system. Digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease and others can result from disruption of the balance of gut microbiota.14 But because of the interaction between the brain and the gut, mood and cognition are also affected, making frequent eaters “nervous, impatient of restraint, self-willed and irritable.”


One of the reasons may be that the synthesis of serotonin, sometimes called a happiness hormone, is dependent upon the metabolism of tryptophan. This in turn is dependent upon a healthy balance of gut microbiota.15


Giving the stomach time to rest has been linked with mood improvement in mice experiencing chronic stress and depression, and in healthy humans.16 Intermittent fasting has also shown potential for use in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and autism spectrum disorder.17



Is It Bad to Eat Late at Night?

Irregular work schedules, limited leisure time, persistent advertising of processed foods, and fast food restaurants that are open 24/7 have all contributed to the practice of late night eating and eating just before bedtime. In the 19th century, Mrs. White had this to say about nighttime eating. 


It is quite a common custom with people of the world to eat three times a day, besides eating at irregular intervals between meals; and the last meal is generally the most heartiest and is often taken just before retiring. This is reversing the natural order; a hearty meal should never be taken so late in the day. Should these persons change their practice to eat but two meals a day, and nothing between meals, not even an apple, a nut, or any bite of fruit, the result would be seen in a good appetite and greatly improved health.18


One problem with eating at night is that it interferes with digestion because digestion slows at night. Predictably, a study found a strong association between eating close to bed-time and gastroesophageal reflux.19 Other studies have found that eating just before bed is associated with chronic insomnia,20 obesity,21 and higher blood glucose measures.22 Higher blood sugar levels are linked to chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.23 Again, it’s sound advice to stop eating several hours before bed.



Two or Three Meals A Day

Popular opinion is that frequent, small meals are best for overall health. However, Ellen White wrote:


Three meals a day and nothing between meals—not even an apple—should be the utmost limit of indulgence. Those who go further violate nature’s laws and will suffer the penalty.24


As the research evidence grows, many health experts are revising their position on the number of meals that are best for optimal health. More and more are recommending fewer meals with no snacks in between. The idea that six or more meals a day is what’s best is becoming outdated as contrary evidence mounts. Researchers have discovered that eating six or more times a day is associated with a significant increase in disease risk.25 In another study, higher body mass index was found to be linked with eating more than three meals a day.26 



Optimal Eating Plan


To summarize, the optimal eating plan includes these characteristics:



“A regular meal pattern including breakfast consumption, consuming a higher proportion of energy early in the day, reduced meal frequency (i.e., 2–3 meals/day), and regular fasting periods may provide physiological benefits such as reduced inflammation, improved circadian rhythmicity, increased autophagy and stress resistance, and modulation of the gut microbiota.”27

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