Eating Late Can Change How You Burn Calories And Store Fat, Depressing Study Finds : ScienceAlert

A new study suggests that eating later can directly affect our biological weight regulation in three important ways: through the number of calories we burn; our hunger level; and the way our bodies store fat.

With obesity now affecting hundreds of millions of people worldwide, this is a valuable insight into how the risk of becoming obese could be reduced relatively easily – just by eating our meals a few hours earlier.

Previous studies had already identified a link between meal timing and weight gain, but here the researchers wanted to dig deeper into the link and tease out the biological reasons behind it.

“We wanted to test the mechanisms that might explain why eating late increases the risk of obesity,” says neuroscientist Frank Scheer of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“Previous research by us and others had shown that late eating is associated with an increased risk of obesity, increased body fat and reduced success in losing weight. We wanted to understand why.”

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The study was tightly controlled and included 16 participants with a body mass index (BMI) in the range of overweight or obese.

Each volunteer went through two different experiments lasting six days, with sleep and eating strictly controlled beforehand, and several weeks between each test.

In one experiment, participants adhered to a strict schedule of three meals a day at the normal times — breakfast at 9 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m., and dinner around 6 p.m.

In the other, the three meals were pushed back (the first at around 1 p.m. and the last at around 9 p.m.) – i.e. lunch, dinner and dinner.

Through blood samples, survey questions, and other measurements, the team was able to make a number of observations.

When eating later, levels of the hormone leptin — which tells us when we are full — were lower over 24 hours, suggesting that participants may have felt hungrier. In addition, calories were burned more slowly.

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The tests also showed that adipose tissue gene expression — which affects how the body stores fat — increased the adipogenetic process used to build adipose tissue and decreased the lipolysis process, which breaks down fat.

Here we consider a combination of physiological and molecular mechanisms that increase the risk of obesity.

“We isolated these effects by controlling for confounding variables like calorie intake, physical activity, sleep, and exposure to light, but in real life, many of these factors can themselves be affected by meal timing,” says Scheer.

Of course, obesity can lead to other health problems, including diabetes and cancer, and therefore finding ways to prevent it in the first place would make a huge difference to the health of the world’s population.

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What this study shows is that eating earlier in the day can affect three key factors in how our bodies balance energy and the resulting risk of obesity — and it’s a change that some people may find easier to manage than sticking to a diet or to keep an exercise program.

In the future, the team would like to see research involving more women (in this case, only 5 of the 16 volunteers were women) and research analyzing how changes in bedtime relative to mealtime might affect these processes as well.

“In larger studies where rigorous control of all of these factors is not possible, we must at least consider how other behavioral and environmental variables alter these biological pathways that underlie obesity risk,” says Scheer.

The research was published in cellular metabolism.

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