Best Time to Eat for Heart Health

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If you snack impulsively, eat at unusual times, or chow down before bedtime, chew on this: Irregular eating can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

So says the American Heart Association (AHA), which suggests that sticking to a regular mealtime schedule may help you avoid long-term health problems. Unhealthy eating has become more common over the past 40 years, a worrisome trend noted by the AHA in a scientific statement issued in January 2017.

Many people who have trouble finding time to cook or enjoy a sensible meal turn to fast-food restaurants, vending machines, and processed convenience foods for nourishment. The result: bigger portions that provide fast energy, but fewer nutrients.

“Given people’s busy lives, setting aside time to eat without distraction is vital,” says Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D., associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University and lead author of the scientific statement, published online in the journal Circulation. Scientific statements generally include a review of data available on a specific subject.

What impulsive eating does

The authors reviewed studies that measured the effects of erratic and impulsive eating on peoples’ health. Among the findings:

  • Eating breakfast every day prevents excessive saturated fat intake and minimizes impulsive snacking, both of which can cause weight gain.
  • Eating your heaviest meal late at night may increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, or stroke, but the authors warned that most studies addressing late-night eating are inconclusive.

Smart eating tips

The researchers stressed that more research is needed to definitively show that a suggested eating pattern can have lasting health benefits. Still, even if you’re busy, eating healthy can be as easy if you follow these tips from the AHA:

  • Eat your heaviest meal in the morning or afternoon.
  • Avoid late-night or overnight eating.
  • Have a snack before larger, more elaborate meals to prevent overeating.
  • Choose healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products) when snacking.
  • Set a meal schedule and follow it to prevent extreme hunger. Also, do not eat when you are angry, depressed, or worried, because that’s when people are most likely to overeat, St-Onge says.

“We suggest eating mindfully, by paying attention to planning both what you eat and when you eat meals and snacks, to combat emotional eating,” St-Onge says. “Many people find that emotions can trigger eating episodes when they are not hungry, which often leads to [consuming] too many calories from foods that have low nutritional value.”