Research is showing that humans were designed for time-restricted eating.
I’ve told this story so often that I always feel like I’m repeating myself, but the truth is it’s a story worth repeating.
Nearly three years ago, I was overweight. I had been overweight for over a decade, in fact — a state that I attributed to my solid British/American genetics and 12 years of consistent childbearing. (Note that I failed to attribute the weight to brownies and/or ice cream — a significant oversight.) But after having my fifth baby, I was tired of being chronically exhausted, easily winded, and six sizes larger than I should have been.
So I signed our family up for taekwondo. While six months of near-daily intense exercise did wonders for my exhaustion and cardio capacity, it made very little difference in my pant size. But to accommodate a change in our class times, I changed when I ate. Not what I ate, but when — I began eating my first and largest meal at noon, having a snack before taekwondo in the afternoon, and then eating dinner when we got home around 8:30. Seemingly overnight, I began to lose weight. When my clothes were literally falling off I finally went shopping, only to discover I had gone down four sizes. I bought a pair of jeans in a size I hadn’t worn since middle school, stunned (and overjoyed!) at my seemingly miraculous transformation.
It wasn’t miraculous. I had accidentally stumbled upon the secret of time-restricted feeding, a practice that’s growing in popularity among researchers and lay people alike. A recent New York Times article asked Satchin Panda, professor and expert on circadian rhythms research at the Salk Institute as well as the author of The Circadian Code, to break down the science behind time-restricted feeding.
Nutrition scientists have long debated the best diet for optimal health. But now some experts believe that it’s not just what we eat that’s critical for good health, but when we eat it …
During the day, the pancreas increases its production of the hormone insulin, which controls blood sugar levels, and then slows it down at night. The gut has a clock that regulates the daily ebb and flow of enzymes, the absorption of nutrients and the removal of waste. The communities of trillions of bacteria that comprise the microbiomes in our guts operate on a daily rhythm as well. These daily rhythms are so ingrained that they are programmed in our DNA: Studies show that in every organ, thousands of genes switch on and switch off at roughly the same time every day.
It’s almost silly how much sense this makes. The human body has evolved for millennia to optimize our overall health and well-being, and for millennia humanity didn’t have the luxury of ready-to-eat food available at all hours of the day and night. We were limited by what we could hunt, gather, and prepare — and even more limited by when we could do so. While there were ancient methods for extending the shelf-life of food (like drying and salting), these were time and labor-intensive undertakings that were painstakingly completed in order to prepare for the winter months, when food and daylight were both scarce. The supply of shelf-stable foods was carefully rationed during the winter so our ancestors could survive until the spring, when daylight and food sources would be abundant once more.
It was only with the advent of electricity that light became a resource we could take for granted, and food became something we could keep for longer periods of time without investing the effort of preservation. Along with the electrical revolution came a revolution in eating — we began to stay up later and, with fully stocked pantries and refrigerators, we had plenty of food to snack on in the wee hours.
Modern humans tend to “graze” all day, According to Dr. Panda, the average person eats numerous times within a 15-hour window each day … a far cry from two or three meals we evolved to metabolize within the eight hours of sunlight. It’s no wonder we’re facing an unprecedented health crisis.
Looking beyond the physical, this pattern of unrestricted eating has a detrimental spiritual effect as well. Restraint, something our ancestors learned by necessity, is such a dire struggle for us that we resort to counting calories and locking our refrigerators. Instead of enjoying the goodness of food and being grateful for the nourishment it gives us, food has become our enemy — something we either fanatically control or habitually overindulge in.
It doesn’t have to be this way. God gave us food as a gift to nourish us, and for us to enjoy. The simplest way to get back to that enjoyment isn’t to follow intricate eating plans that ban obscure ingredients, nor is it to plug every bite we take into a calorie-tracking app — it’s to just eat good food at the right time. Psalm 145:15 had it right from the beginning: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time.”