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When You Eat Matters: Food Timing and Health
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When You Eat Matters: Food Timing and Health

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Did you know that it’s not just what you eat but when you eat that matters? Too many of us focus only on what we eat and derail our efforts by not eating at the right times.

Not having a regular eating pattern can negatively affect your mental health and can even cause weight gain despite your efforts to lose weight.

Your body’s circadian clock – the clock that tells your body when you go to sleep and wake up, is highly affected by when you eat food. If your eating habits get thrown off track, so does the rest of your body’s functions, especially your ability to digest properly, focus, and have energy. This can spill over into your sleep quality and recovery as well. 

You might not think of your eating habits as playing a role in your ability to be happy, have energy, or just function, but it does.

When you eat affects your dopamine levels, and individuals with depression often have lower levels of dopamine. Certain other mood disorders are also made worse by irregular eating habits, including bipolar disorder and anxiety. This is the reason people that work odd shifts often struggle with mental health issues because their sleeping and eating patterns are off.

What Can You Do?

The good news is that you can control your eating patterns to benefit your overall health including your mental health, even when you work night shift. Your circadian rhythm sets the basis for your body and mind, but how you treat your body determines the outcome.

Since you have 24-hour access to food, it’s important to set time limits for your eating so that your body can regulate itself.

Set Your Eating Window

You don’t have to have a strict schedule that tells you you’ll eat at exactly 7:00 a.m., noon, and 5:00 p.m. Instead, set flexible parameters. For example, you may choose to eat between 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. and let your digestive system rest from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.

Eating Times and Shift Work

If you work a day schedule, limit your food in the evenings. After dinner, allow yourself a small snack if you need it, but nothing two hours before bed. That will give your digestive system time to rest. 

If you work nights, try to follow the same principle, and leave a bit of time between your last meal of the “day” and the time you’ll go to sleep. That will allow your digestive system to take a much-needed break and re-set your system. 

Intermittent Fasting 

Intermittent fasting involves eating within a shortened window of time, usually within 4, 8, 12, or 16 hours during the day. Don’t let the term scare you – you aren’t going to starve yourself, and most people who practice intermittent fasting feel satisfied. You choose the window in which you can eat, but if you stick to it, you give your digestive system and brain the chance to process the foods appropriately, which helps regulate your moods.

How Does Intermittent Fasting Work?

When you use intermittent fasting, you decide which hours of the day you digest, and which you rest. A typical schedule is deciding you’ll take in all of your calories for the day between 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. The times you aren’t eating is when you’re fasting. This helps your body burn fat, regulate itself, and it helps your hormones.

You can choose to eat within a specific window of time or to eat one or two specific meals a day. Restricting your meals within a certain window is usually the most successful. Here’s how it works.

On the schedule mentioned above, you don’t eat before 8:00 a.m. or after 6:00 p.m. During your fasting time, your body burns up blood sugar and starts burning fat. 

Not only does it help you physically, but it helps your brain focus, gives you more energy, and it makes you feel better overall, fighting the risk of mental health issues. As a bonus, eating on a regular schedule can fight obesity and the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular issues, and other health issues. Without these physical issues, you might decrease your risk of mental health issues too because when your body feels good, so does your mind.

Options for Intermittent Fasting

There are many other options for intermittent fasting including:

  • Eat as you wish for 5 days and fast for 2 days, restricting yourself to one or two larger meals, or a shorter eating window on those days.
  • 16/8 is an approach where you eat for 8 hours and fast for 16
  • OMAD stands for “one meal a day,” where people eat once a day. It has to be a large meal, since these are your calories for the day. Not many people do well on this diet, and women can throw off hormones restricting to only one meal a day.

Whatever you decide, try to avoid excessive periods of fasting as it can have short-term and long-term consequences. 

Final Thoughts

It’s true – when you eat matters. While you probably focus on the food you put in your mouth, you should try to focus on when you eat too. Restricting food to certain hours of the day can help regulate how your body functions and you might start to feel better overall.