Balanced meal timing may benefit cognitive health, study shows


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A new study suggests that eating three relatively similar meals throughout the day can prevent cognitive decline. AzmanL/Getty Images
  • A new study finds that covering our daily energy needs with three relatively similar meals may be the best way to avoid cognitive decline.
  • According to the study, skipping breakfast is linked to worsening cognitive health.
  • The study also finds that aligning your energy intake with one meal or another isn’t associated with rapid cognitive decline, but it doesn’t benefit your cognition as well as three well-balanced meals.

Food is fuel. It provides us with the energy our body needs to function and also to stay healthy.

Previous research has focused on how the quality of the energy – the food – we consume can affect our health, and experts have looked at this Cardiovascular and Metabolism- health outcomes associated with if we eat.

However, little research has been done on how the distribution of our daily energy intake can affect long-term cognitive health and whether it has an impact on the risk of developing dementia.

According to that World Health Organizationn(WHO), around 55 million people worldwide suffer from dementia, with 10 million new cases diagnosed each year. As the world population ages – the proportion of older people is steadily increasing – the WHO estimates that 78 million people will have dementia by 2030 and 139 million people by 2050.

To better understand the effects of energy intake and meal timing on cognition, a new study examines the potential impact of different meal schedules, or temporal patterns of energy intake (TPEI), on cognitive decline.

The results show that eating balanced meals three times a day is associated with better cognitive function compared to other, less evenly distributed ways of consuming one’s total energy intake (TEI).

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“To our knowledge, this study is one of the few population-based studies examining the association of TPEI and cognitive decline, although accumulating studies have linked TPEI to health outcomes, including obesity, hypertensionand cardiovascular health‘ the authors write.

The study also shows that skipping breakfast is associated with poorer cognitive function and faster cognitive decline.

The study was recently published in metabolism.

The researchers drew their conclusions from an analysis of data from the 1997-2006 China Health and Nutrition Survey.

This data included the eating habits of 3,342 people in China for whom the survey collected up to four repeat entries over 10 years. The subjects were at least 55 years old, with a mean age of 62.2 years.

The authors note that 61.2% lived in rural areas and 13.6% had a high school diploma or higher.

Individuals with severe cognitive decline were excluded from the study.

At the start of the study period, each participant received both a nutritional assessment and a phone-based cognitive test in which they were rated for their immediate and delayed word recall, counting backwards, and agility in subtracting 7 from the numbers provided.

Cognitive scores ranged from 0 to 27 points, with 27 points representing the highest level of cognitive health.

The researchers categorized people’s eating timing into six eating patterns:

  • Equally distributed: People balanced their energy intake over three roughly equal meals a day. They used 28.5% of their daily energy at breakfast, 36.3% at lunch, and 33.8% at dinner.
  • breakfast dominant: People ate three meals, but consumed most of their energy at breakfast, at 49.5%.
  • Lunch-dominant: People ate three meals, but consumed the most energy at lunch, at 64.3%.
  • Dinner dominant: People ate three meals, but consumed most of the energy, 64.5%, at dinner.
  • Snack Rich: People got 36.8% of their TEI from snack foods.
  • skip breakfast: People ate little or no breakfast and consumed only 5.9% of their TEI.
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The breakfast skipping pattern was associated with a cognitive decline of 0.14 cognitive test points per year compared to the evenly spaced pattern.

No other similar decreases were observed in other patterns.

dr Clifford Segil, a neurologist at Providence Saint John Health Center in Santa Monica, California, who was not involved in the study, described this finding Medical news today as “fascinating”.

“I think the takeout would be that if you choose to skip the meal at breakfast, it’s worse to skip a meal,” he said.

However, when the researchers modified the possible TPEIs into just four patterns — evenly distributed, breakfast-dominant, lunch-dominant, and dinner-dominant — all but the first were associated with lower cognitive function.

However, none of these were associated with accelerated loss of function.

according to dr Segil might unintentionally support the study that we have excess calories, and if we assume we have excess calories, we have obesity. And I think that’s where most of this type of research on excess calories in general health has been done.”

Still, he noted, the study is generally consistent with other research suggesting that “splitting your energy and eating it into evenly distributed meals improves short-term cognitive function.”

“That supports what we’ve heard about other diseases.”

previous research has indicated that meal timing affects the body’s circadian clock. In mammals, the circadian clock is located in two clusters of nerve cells called the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN)located in a region at the base of the brain called the anterior hypothalamus.

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dr Hoon-Ki Sung, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology at the University of Toronto, explained MNT:

“We have two different types of internal clocks (circadian rhythm). One resides in the brain (central clock or central circadian clock) and the other clock resides in some peripheral tissues, including fat, liver, gut, and retina (peripheral circadian clock). While the central clock is primarily regulated by light, the peripheral clock can be regulated by multiple factors, including the central clock and feeding.”

dr Sung suggests that circadian nutrition could refer to “a circadian rhythm diet or circadian nutrition.”

He said this means that “you synchronize the feeding rhythm with your internal clock”. He noted that this type of diet can include three meals, “plus one meal [or] energy intake between meals.”

other studies have linked meal timing to short-term improvement in cognitive function.

The western three-meal-a-day diet arose out of the needs of employers and employees during the Industrial Revolution. Before that, two large meals a day based on household and farming chores was more common.

“I think common sense dictates that you should eat a meal before the time of day you’re going to be busiest,” added Dr. Add sail. “Some people are busy in the mornings, so a big breakfast [is often] recommended, especially for school-age children.”

Whatever the case, more research is needed on the long-term benefits of meal timing for cognitive health.

“Cognitive problems are multifactorial and there is still very limited understanding,” concluded Dr. sail.



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