Chrononutrition: Why Your Mealtimes Matter

By Chere Di Boscio

We’ve all done this: dashed out of the house, late for work. Dived into a cafe to grab a muffin and coffee, before sliding into the office just as the clock strikes nine. Several hours later, you realise you’re starving, but you need to finish some work at your desk. So you run out to grab a sandwich and eat it while you type. At the end of the day, you’re even hungrier, so you grab a bunch of microwavable stuff so you can nuke it fast as soon as you get home.

Not great lifestyle choices, according to clinical nutritionist Filip Koidis.

I’m in his office in the centre of London, trying my best to confess my shoddy eating habits to this handsome guy sitting in front of me. Quite frankly, it’s a bit embarrassing. I’m not hungry in the morning. Or even around noon. I just basically have a latte and some grapes and I’m good till about 5, when I eat quite a bit – maybe a big salad and soup, or an omelette with some brown rice on the side. Late at night, I nibble a bit, but I don’t really sit down to dinner. This may sound like the sparse diet of some kind of supermodel, but the truth is – errrm – I actually wake up around 11, and am in bed around 3. (Such is the luxury of working for yourself!). I just don’t follow ‘normal’ meal times.

Apart from being rather anti-social (just try inviting me out for breakfast!) Filip tells me that I’m ignoring my body’s natural rhythms and interrupting its daily physiological events. It’s all about chrononutrition, you see.  Say what?

The Theory

A French nutritionist called Alain Delabos came up with the idea of chrononutrition back in the late 80s. In a nutshell, chrononutrition is all about eating foods at times of the day when they are most useful, to best meet your energy requirements and prevent storage of food as  fat  in certain parts of the body.

According to Delabos, this stems from humans’ natural ancestral needs, which are already predetermined in the body. We secrete different substances like enzymes and  hormones at different times of the day to best break down the different types of food we eat. So eating fruit for breakfast, for example, isn’t a great match to our available enzymes, and neither is eating  pasta  for dinner. Apparently the body doesn’t need these nutrients at those times, and what it doesn’t need, it stores.

Chrononutrition works by calculating the body’s enzyme secretions and works out what foods to eat at certain times and what to cut out at other times. With the exception of yoghurt and milk, which contain lactose that the body cannot digest, there are no forbidden foods, no calorie counting and no fat or sugar control.

Aside from  weight loss, Filip claims that chrononutrition helps the body work better and smoother, which in turn can balance out your figure and energy levels. By eating what your body needs at the times it needs it, you can also improve your general health and are less likely to suffer from diabetes, high  cholesterol  and high blood pressure.

Facts about Sleep

  • One in three adults suffer symptoms of insomnia [Epidemiological study, Sleep Medical Review 2002].
  • Good sleep makes your immune system 3-5 times more resistant to common cold compared to poor sleep. [Cochen et al, Archives of Internal Medicine 2009].
  • Optimal amount of sleep/night for longevity: 7h/night [JACC study 2009]
  • Research has shown that there is a good correlation between regular good sleep (6-8/hours) and healthy weight status.

The Diet

Filip prescribed a diet for me that actually looked pretty awesome. It includes things like whole rolled oats with mixed berries, 1tsp manuka honey, 1T pumpkin seeds or 2 slices of Russian bread toast with peanut butter, sliced banana and almond milk for breakfast. Lunch is to be eaten at least 3 hours after breakfast and would be something like a hearty bowl of veggie soup with 3-4 corn crackers or a soya burger with a whole sweet potato, garnished with rosemary, sea salt and extra virgin olive oil, whilst dinners are basically as they are now for me: small.

Knowing that I like to go to the gym in the evenings, Filip suggested pre-and post-workout foods like a fruit with a scoop of nut butter followed by a handful of almonds or fresh almond milk for some good vegan protein.

It was super easy to follow this diet, and though I didn’t lose any weight, that wasn’t really the goal – the goal was to be a bit healthier, and to have more energy. Unfortunately, a huge amount of travel threw my circadian rhythms into disarray, but I was advised that to help with that, certain foods could assist. For example, while meat, milk and carbs can interfere with good sleep, these foods contain melatonin, the hormone that helps you doze off:

  1. Goji berries
  2. Raspberries
  3. Almonds
  4. Tart/Sour Cherries (raw, not sweet/sweetened)
  5. Fenugreek
  6. Mustard seeds
  7. Walnuts
  8. Orange Bell Peppers
  9. Kiwi fruit

General Pointers from Filip

  • Controlling eating patterns and habits can have profound effects on weight loss.
  • Sleeping well is vital to dieting well – with seven hours being the optimal amount of sleep per night.
  • At the simplest level, studies have found time and again that when we are tired we over eat and have less control over what we consume.
  • If you sleep well, you are likely to make better dietary choices (lower in calories) the day after, which will result in a more balanced diet.
  • If your sleep is disrupted (stress/shift work e.t.c) the production of cortisol is affected (cortisol production is reduced at night) which in turn affects many bodily functions such as  metabolism and the regulation of the immune system.
  • Apart from heading into bed on time, eating cleverly can also help us nod off quickly and enjoy good quality sleep. Try to manipulate the carbohydrate fat and protein content to help create optimum sleep conditions. A large carbohydrate load will create some insulin resistance which in turn may affect melatonin and cortisol (and therefore sleep)
  • Diet induced thermogenesis, known as DIT, which is energy your body uses to process the food you consume, is 50 per cent lower during the evening meal, As DIT accounts for  approximately 10 per cent of the total energy we expend everyday, people that have bigger meals at night end up burning 5% less energy on a daily basis.
  • ‘The theory is that people who eat most of their calories at night end up burning less energy than early eaters and consequently over time experience a difference in weight status.
  • Timing of our meals is a major issue with today’s society, and eating late at night should definitely not be encouraged.
  • There have been several small scale studies suggesting that when comparing 2 groups of equicaloric daily consumption, the group consuming 70% of its energy in the evening vs morning resulted in weight gain & some hormonal imbalances.

As you can see, I learned a lot from seeing Filip, and I’d highly recommend that everyone visit a nutritionist. After all, each one of us has our bad habits, and is likely to go through some kind of stress or illness related to our lifestyle.  Under a stress or disease-state, the way our body functions changes in order to cope with the stressor and also affects the way in which our body interacts with food. A registered dietitian has the expertise to consult and advise you at every stage of your life in order to help you improve your health status and help prevent diseases to which you may/are pre-disposed to.

A nutritionist will  tailor deep-scientific knowledge to each client’s lifestyle, genetics, biochemistry and physiology, helping them build up to an optimum nutrition regimen.  

All images by Pixabay except that of Filip. For more information, please click here.

Chere Di Boscio

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