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Weight Loss Troubles? It’s Not What You Eat, It’s When You Eat

About half of the U.S. population makes at least one New Year’s resolution every January—and not surprisingly, about 40 percent of them have to do with weight loss. It’s also estimated that 64 percent of people maintain their resolutions after one month, with that number dropping to 46 percent after six months.1

Now that we’re a month into the new year, are you keeping up with your 2015 goals? If you wanted to lose weight, are you succeeding?

If you’re doing everything right—eating right and exercising regularly—but not seeing the numbers on the scale budge as quickly as you’d like, a recent study may provide some interesting insight as to why. It turns out that the typical three-meal-a-day schedule most of us follow may actually hinder our weight loss efforts.2

Modern-day humans and domesticated animals are the only creatures that have consistent daily meal patterns. Carnivores kill and consume prey a few times a week, while hunter/gatherers eat intermittently, depending on the availability of food. Humans followed much this same pattern until the agricultural revolution began and food became readily available year-round. Not long afterward, people adopted a breakfast/lunch/dinner schedule, presumably because “it provided social and practical benefits” that suited changing lifestyles.

This new dietary pattern didn’t pose much of a problem at first, that is until high-sugar, calorie-dense foods became commonplace. This, of course, was (and continues to be) combined with people no longer walking and instead of driving (or sitting and riding) everywhere. Combine three high-calorie meals a day with more sedentary behavior, and, predictably, you end up with obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Furthermore, the authors of this study assert that, historically, human eating patterns used to be dictated by our internal biological (circadian) clock. Circadian rhythms are 24-hour oscillations in behavior, physiology and metabolism that respond to the daily changes in light.

However, two mainstays in our modern world—shift work and constant exposure to artificial light—have greatly affected our circadian rhythms. As the researchers noted, “For millions of years in the absence of artificial light, the circadian clock—in conjunction with the retinal light input—imposed diurnal rhythms in physiology and behaviors, including the activity/rest and feeding/fasting cycle. For many of our ancestors, food was probably scarce and primarily consumed during daylight hours, leaving long hours of overnight fasting. With the advent of affordable artificial lighting and industrialization, modern humans began to experience prolonged hours of illumination every day and resultant extended consumption of food.”

Additionally, nearly 10 percent of the labor force works at night. During the night shift, individuals are exposed to prolonged artificial light and atypical eating patterns. On days they don’t work, they usually maintain a “typical” routine of daytime wakefulness and eating and nighttime sleeping, which creates a jetlag-type reaction in the body—messing with the circadian clock even more. This chronic pattern of circadian disruption has been shown to increase the risk of not only obesity, but also cancer and cardiovascular disease.3-4

Intermittent Energy Restriction

So what’s the answer to preventing these diseases as well as weight gain and obesity? According to these researchers, we may want to consider adopting the eating habits of our early ancestors and engaging in intermittent energy restriction—better known as fasting.

Previous research has shown that fasting can improve health by reducing oxidative damage and inflammation, optimizing energy metabolism, enhancing cellular protection and extending life, not to mention decreasing the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, asthma and other diseases.5-6

Fortunately, fasting does not mean starving yourself for long periods of time. In fact, the researchers suggest that forgoing food for as little as 16 hours can have enormous benefits for your health and waistline. In practical terms, if you finished dinner at 6 pm on Monday, your next meal would be a mid-morning brunch/early lunch around 10 am on Tuesday. For most people, this is very doable.

Other research supports the idea that consuming a big breakfast every morning may not be as crucial to good health and skinny waistlines as we’ve been led to believe. One study published last year found that eating breakfast “had no discernable effect on weight loss in free-living adults who were attempting to lose weight.”7

Admittedly, convincing most people to skip breakfast can be a challenge. But if you’re currently eating right and exercising but have hit a plateau, or just generally need a boost in your weight loss efforts, intermittent fasting—just 16 hours overnight into morning—may be a technique you should consider trying.


  1. Statistic Brain. www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics.
  2. Mattson MP, et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Nov 25;111(47):16647-53.
  3. Stevens RG, et al. CA Cancer J Clin. 2014 May-Jun;64(3):207-18.
  4. Morris CJ, et al. Prog Brain Res. 2012;199:337-58.
  5. Longo VD and Mattson MP. Cell Metab. 2014 Feb 4;19(2):181-92.
  6. Harvie MN, et al. Int J Obes (Lond). 2011 May;35(5):714-27.
  7. Dhurandhar EJ, et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jun 4;100(2):507-13.

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