When You Eat is as Important as What You Eat
Rhythm is everywhere. Each particle of our being moves and pulsates, dances and sings, and keeps to the beat of a brilliantly conceived symphony. The whole of our biology is a fantastic clockwork of precise chemical and hormonal rhythms whose timing is critical for our survival and well-being. Your heart beating is a rhythm. Your lungs breathing, inhaling and exhaling vital atmosphere, is a rhythm. The electrochemical pulsation of the brain is a rhythm. So too is the menstrual cycle, waking and sleeping, digesting and eliminating, and the contraction and expansion of every cell, vessel, and organ in the body. Interfere with any of these and disease or death can follow.
Master rhythm and you master metabolism.
Indeed, much of what ails us from a nutritional perspective – weight gain, fatigue, digestive complaints, carbohydrate craving, overeating – can be resolved by entraining with the kinds of rhythms that naturally and effortlessly regenerate us. Lets take a look at how we can better understand and harness this important metabolic force.
One of the simplest and most reliable ways to measure the metabolic rate of the human body is to take its temperature. The hotter you are, the more metabolic you’ll be. The Latin name for our midsection-solar plexus-means “gathering place for the sun.” This highlights how we’ve long known that the basic design of the human form is a capturing device for the sun’s energy. The more efficiently we harness the sun’s warmth, the better we digest, assimilate, and calorie burn.
It’s no accident that we use temperature metaphors to describe what excites us. An energetic person is called “a fireball,” an attractive person is “hot,” we “warm up” to some people while others leave us “cold.”
As evolutionary fate would have it, body temperature has a rhythm that is consistent and predictable for most everyone, and this daily rhythmic fluctuation reveals some important insight into unleashing our metabolic potential. During the evening and early morning hours when we sleep, body temperature drops. It makes sense that our bodies are cooler at this time because were not busy hunting for animals in the jungle or hunting for bargains at the mall. Our muscles have little work to do at this time; the body is in a state of rest, healing, and repair. We do burn calories as we sleep, but not at the amount we use up in our waking hours.
The moment your eyes open in the morning, body temperature automatically begins to rise.
This is the same thing as saying your metabolism wakes up when you do. It makes biological sense because now the sun is up, and it’s time to find food, find a mate, do battle, and perhaps do a few good deeds. Even if you stayed in bed all day and didn’t move, your temperature/metabolism would still elevate because we’re programmed to entrain with the rhythms of the sun.
Since you’re naturally heating up in the morning, eating at this time is a smart bet if you’re trying to lose weight. Adding food to your gut will increase metabolic rate even more and provide your body with the nutrients its already preparing to process. Think of your gut as a furnace. When you add fuel, the heat rises.
There are, of course, exceptions to every nutritional rule. I’m presenting this information as guidelines – not absolute facts for everyone. Many people who live in hot-weather climates do great with no breakfast, a light breakfast, or a fruit breakfast. You’ll also find that you might do well on a substantial breakfast in the colder months, but will be drawn to eat lighter in the early hours during the warmer seasons. You may also go through periods where the first meal you eat isn’t until after lunch, and that too works fine, until your metabolism shifts into its next phase.
Body temperature continues a slow, steady rise and subsequently peaks around noon. It will exactly reach its apex the very moment the sun finds its high point in the sky – this is a little known scientific fact that shows our profound connection to the cosmos. Our digestive force is therefore hottest at lunchtime. It makes sense, then, that our largest meal would be best consumed at this time, when our ability to pulverize food is strongest.
After our metabolic peak at high noon, body temperature dips for the period between approximately 2:00pm and 5:00pm. It shouldn’t surprise you that just as we feel more awake when body temperature is rising, we feel sleepy when it’s falling. So if you’ve ever felt that there’s something wrong with you because your energy drops somewhere between 2-ish and 5-ish, don’t worry – you’re perfectly normal. Most people you ask will tell you that they feel tired during this time. It’s the human rhythm. Lions love to lounge around and absorb after their big kill. So do you and I.
Body energy – in the form of blood flow and oxygenation is rerouted to digestion after our midday meal.
The result is that we feel even more tired. People in many European and Latin American countries typically have their biggest meal at lunchtime – the peak metabolic time slot of digestion and calorie burning. Then they take a siesta. Businesses shut down, social activity goes quiet, and people snooze. They are honoring and working with the natural rhythms of the body. Entire cultures are designed to function in relation to digestive rhythms.
In America, most of us tank up on caffeine or sugar during the metabolic decline of 2:00 to 5:00 PM, pushing through our fatigue in service to a way of life that values the overdrive gear more than any other speed. Can you imagine what life would be like if you could relax during this time and let go of achieving and conquering? Numerous studies have shown that one or two fifteen- to twenty-minute rest periods during the day will profoundly increase cognitive function, physical performance, mood and energy. You don’t even need to sleep during this time. It’s simply about rest, stillness, closing off outside sensations, and recharging your batteries.
Simply put, resting is a metabolic enhancer.
At around 4:00 to 6:00 PM body temperature starts to rise again. This is when most people feel their energy return. It’s also when the English stop for teatime. It makes perfect sense to do your caffeine at this point, when metabolism is picking up anyway. By around nine o’clock, body temperature begins another downward trend in preparation for sleep. Indeed, sleep research reveals that we cannot fall asleep soundly unless temperature is dropping. Anything, then, that would raise body heat in the late evening would be counterproductive to good sleep. Recall that the act of eating raises body temperature. A big meal before bed could therefore interfere with your slumber. Once again, though, Americans have it backward. We tend to do a small to nonexistent breakfast, a moderate sized lunch, and a more often than not, a big dinner before bed. And this is exactly what you ought to do if your goal is restless sleep and weight gain.
When you eat is as important as what you eat
In a typical study, researchers put a group of people on a 2,000 calorie diet. In the first part of the study, test subjects could only eat their 2,000 calories at breakfast. They ate nothing else for the rest of the day. With this one meal in the morning, everyone either lost weight or maintained their existing weight. In the second phase of the study, the same exact people ate the exact same 2,000 calories diet, except this time, they could only eat it at dinner. With this one meal for the entire day, eaten in the evening, every single person in the study gained weight. Can you see why counting calories to lose weight can be a waste of energy if we don’t take into account when we eat those calories?
Timing is everything. Sumo wrestlers have known for centuries that large meals eaten in the late evening hours will give them the physical advantage they covet most – flab. Simply put, we calorie-burn less efficiently in the late evening hours.
So, if you want to get the ultimate metabolic benefit of eating, don’t eat your most substantial and nutrient-dense meal when your digestion is on a downturn in the late evening hours. Unless you’re seriously considering an unusual career change, I suggest that you relinquish the Sumo diet immediately. Eating little food during the day and much in the evening will never take you where you want to go when it comes to optimizing energy and burning calories.
I would love to hear your experiences with eating and rhythm.
Please let me know your thoughts below – I don’t always get a chance to comment on each one but I do read them.
My warmest regards,
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating