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The Rhythm Diet
Forget the Five-Bite Diet, the Hollywood Diet, the Grapefruit Diet and the Starvation Diet … If you want a healthy body weight, just follow the Rhythm Diet!
I call it the ‘rhythm diet’ because it’s about eating in synch with your body’s natural cycles. You eat when your body is primed for optimum digestion and calorie use, and abstain from food when your body has other metabolic priorities and doesn’t want the burden of digestion.
Feeding your body when it doesn’t want food creates imbalance (both physical & mental-emotional) and, eventually, illness. The most commonly researched outcomes of poor meal timing are loosely termed ‘metabolic syndrome’ and include cardiovascular problems like high cholesterol & heart disease, blood sugar problems like diabetes & insulin resistance, and excess weight gain.
While a nutrient-rich diet and regular exercise are core aspects of any functional health approach, appropriate meal timing is the third point on this ‘triangle of harmony’ in diet-related health.
This has been confirmed by research showing that even with a ‘good diet’, poor meal timing still leads to weight gain and other metabolic issues, while appropriate meal timing can reduce the impact of a ‘bad diet’ and help restore balance to existing metabolic problems.
So, good nutrition and body health rely not only on food quality (healthy choices) and quantity (in the right amounts), but also on timing (eating according to the body’s readiness for food).
What is the ‘rhythm diet’?
Eating in synch with your body’s natural inclinations involves having a limited ‘eating window’ (period of the day when food is ingested) of about 8-12 hours, roughly between 7-9am and 5-7pm. This allows a continuous overnight fasting period (when no food is ingested) of about 12-16 hours minimum (the longer the better).
Your body also wants a hearty nourishing early breakfast (7-9am) every day, to ‘break the fast’ and set the body’s food-related clocks.
It also wants breakfast and lunch (12-2pm) to be your largest and most substantial meals of the day, with just a small light ‘top-up’ early dinner (5-7pm) before entering the overnight fasting period.
We know from research that the best diet-related metabolic outcomes are obtained when this eating pattern is maintained.
It was found that people who skipped breakfast, or ate a late brunch instead, showed increased lipogenesis (fat storage) and weight gain, especially in relation to visceral fat (around organs) which is a high risk factor for metabolic issues. Those eating an early breakfast tended to have less weight gain. People who ate dinner early, with no overnight eating, also showed reduced body weight. So, if you’re a ‘late-runner’ the aim is to shift the whole eating window forward, to start eating earlier in the day and stop eating earlier in the day.
In terms of meal-size, people who ate a large nourishing breakfast and a small light dinner showed better measures all round (for things like weight, blood glucose & insulin levels, blood fats & cholesterol, satisfaction vs hunger scores, and food-hormone levels), compared with those who ate a small (or no breakfast) and a large dinner, with an equivalent daily calorie intake.
There are several factors at play, which reveal this as the body’s preferred eating style, including the circadian cycling of hormones associated with food consumption, variations in immune gut repair functions over the day (and the requirement for an ‘empty gut’ before those functions can properly kick in), the body’s more efficient calorie use early in the day, and the daily switch between fat-burning and fat-storage modes for the management of energy homeostasis.
These factors influence appetite and food cravings, whether food calories will be stored as fat or used for energy, and the body’s ability to maintain gut health (which, in turn, also impacts metabolic health).
Aside from physiological indicators, there are also metaphysical (or energetic) factors which support this eating rhythm, particularly when one looks at the body’s daily meridian cycle, where energy, and functional power, shifts from one meridian to the next over the 24 hour period.
For example, the energy focus at 7-9am is in the stomach meridian, making this time period, more than any other time of day, the optimum time for receiving food and intensive nourishment.
I’ll explore this a bit further later.
Due to the nature of its function, the gastrointestinal tract has an incredibly high rate of wear & tear. Tissue damage and breakdown of linings occurs continuously. Toxins & chemicals coming in with food-stuffs need ongoing surveillance and management.
To manage this, the gut has one of the highest concentrations of immune activity for dealing with ‘invasions’ of all kinds and for doing clean-up and repair work. Some repair can occur during the day, when there is a decent interval between meals, but the primary period for focused repair and regeneration occurs overnight.
For this process to take place efficiently, and stay ahead of the next day’s damage, there needs to be a good long period of overnight fasting, when the gut is empty of food and food acids (not digesting). Having dinner early, and keeping it light, ensures that final digestion is completed in good time, and allows the necessary period for efficient gut repair in preparation for the next day.
By this same principle, if you want to give your gut a really good ‘healing holiday’, you can do an occasional total fast for 3-6 days (drinking lots of water to ensure sufficient hydration). This stimulates an enhanced immune response in the gut linings and allows a more intensive clean-up and repair process.
Lipolysis & Thermogenesis
From the body’s point of view, fat stores are simply spare fuel for energy production (thermogenesis).
Food brings in calories (energy units) which are either used immediately on daily activities (if you take in only as much as you need), or converted to fat and stored for future use (if you take in more than you need).
During the overnight fasting period, when no new food-calories are coming in, the body switches to fat as its primary energy source. Thus, it breaks down and burns up fat stores (lipolysis) and uses these until the morning, when more ‘instant energy’ food-calories are ingested at breakfast.
Circadian disruption of any metabolic factors associated with food & eating (eg. sleep cycle disruption, eating during the anticipated fasting period, imbalance in food-related hormones, etc) tends to inhibit overnight lipolysis and encourage weight gain.
Your body’s overnight ‘resting’ energy requirements are much lower than your day-time ‘active’ energy requirements, so you can’t get away with eating lots of high-calorie foods (simple-carbs & sugars) during the day and expect the excess to be all used up overnight. It won’t.
But, if your day-time food intake is restricted to a limited eating window, you can extend the length of time the body is required to burn stored fats, which can assist with weight loss (or simply weight management).
A diet containing lots of fruit-veg & protein-fat (meat, dairy, whole nuts & seeds), and a very low proportion of concentrated simple-carbohydrate foods (grain flour foods and sugar), will enhance this natural function further by reducing the amount of high-calorie simple-carb energy sources and encourage the body to utilize more of the complex-carb energy sources during the day, rather than converting them to fat and storing them.
Another factor is that diet-induced thermogenesis (using food-calories immediately following digestion rather than storing fat) is highest in the morning, lower in afternoon and lowest at night.
This natural body inclination argues for a big nourishing breakfast, when the body desires, and is most likely to use up, all those calories, and a small light dinner, when the body is more likely to store excess calories as fat. It also explains why people who skip breakfast (or have a simple small ‘bite’), then have a huge dinner at the end of the day, are more likely to gain weight.
Hormones, Sleep, Appetite & Cravings
The two primary hormones that regulate food consumption are Ghrelin, which stimulates appetite and feelings of hunger, and Leptin, which suppresses hunger and increases feelings of satiety.
In a healthy body, with appropriate meal timing, these hormones follow a distinct circadian rhythm. While both hormones fluctuate during the day, in response to eating and digestion, leptin levels rise further overnight to suppress ghrelin and its hunger signals. With this change, the body is giving us a clear indication that it doesn’t want to receive food during this part of the cycle. By the time you wake in the morning, and leptin levels have dropped, that lovely feeling of real hunger for breakfast tells you the body is now primed to digest and burn calories.
If you usually don’t feel hungry in the morning, your food-hormone rhythm is most likely out-of-synch and simply needs adjusting. You may be a night-owl or a shift-worker, or you may habitually start the day in a rushed or stressed mind-set (which can also suppress natural hunger signals).
If none of these applies to you, try simply waiting about 30-60 minutes before putting anything into your body (eg. coffee, tea, or other appetite suppressants) and you may find that your hunger simply rises up gradually.
As I will explain later, after a short period of regularly eating breakfast, a stronger morning appetite will begin to return.
Sleep deprivation (poor quality sleep or not getting your full 8 hours), and eating during the anticipated fasting period (when the body doesn’t want food) both have a disruptive impact on fat-burning functions and circadian food-hormone rhythms, leading to metabolic disorders and weight gain for a number of reasons. One is the practical fact of food coming in at the wrong times, as well as the excess calorie intake. Another is the reduced breakdown of fat stores overnight. And yet another is the leptin disturbance itself, and the negative impact this creates on metabolic functions.
This is clearly demonstrated in shift-workers and people regularly adapting to different time zones, where the prevalence of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and disturbances in blood sugar metabolism (diabetes), is higher than in regular nine-to-fivers.
Shift-workers who bring their food intake timing back into the limited daytime eating window, regardless of working hours, show a gradual improvement in these metabolic markers, suggesting that food timing and hormone rhythm is even more important than sleep timing in this case.
When night-time leptin cycles are disrupted, daytime leptin fluctuations are also suppressed, allowing ghrelin’s ‘hungry-voice’ to be more pronounced. This is most obvious after eating, when leptin should rise sharply to signal satisfaction, and it means that even a good hearty meal can leave you feeling unsatisfied, and looking for that ‘something extra’. It also often leads to vague cravings all through the day (and night), and the associated unhelpful snacking, with a particular leaning towards calorie-dense foods (eg. bread, cake, biscuits, potato chips, etc).
In one experiment, volunteers were given some cash and a list of foods items (both healthy & ‘junk’), and sent off to buy anything from that list. The experiment was repeated both after a full night’s sleep, and after a night of no sleep. After the sleepless night, volunteers bought a lot more ‘junk food’ items than they did after the good night’s sleep.
It’s clear that various factors associated with sleep, eating, and fasting cycles all influence, and are influenced by, one another. The common denominator is the circadian rhythm of all food-associated functions and how well you can adapt your lifestyle to allow the body to have its natural flow.
Changing your Eating Rhythms … Liver-Clock Entrainment
The body has a central circadian clock in the brain, which primarily responds to the dark-light cycle, but there are also many ‘peripheral clocks’ in organs and tissues which respond to other environmental and behavioural cues, one of which is the timing of food intake.
This means that your meal times and eating rhythms have the ability to entrain (or re-set) various peripheral clocks, including the liver-clock, without impacting the primary circadian clock. The result is either a harmonising of peripheral clocks with the body’s overall natural rhythm (if you regularly eat as your body desires) or a disruption in the relationship between the body’s overall rhythm and the cycles of various peripheral rhythms (if you regularly eat at undesirable times).
Depending on the cycle at which they are ‘set’, these food-clocks will stimulate your desire for, or expectation of, food at the times of day when they have been entrained to do so. This response can help to perpetuate ‘bad’ food-timing habits as well as good ones.
To make a positive shift in meal timing, you need to re-set your food clocks. This only requires a short period of eating consciously at the new times (it takes less than a week of repetition to entrain the liver clock), after which your food-hormone signals will continue to become stronger in the new timing, and actually help you along. That means you will gradually begin to feel hungry for an early breakfast in the morning, after eating an early breakfast every day for a week or so.
A well-entrained food-clock response will maintain its circadian rhythm even with occasional eating-pattern disruptions, so it’s not necessary to be obsessive about your food timing, but simply to maintain a consistent general eating pattern, particularly in the longer term, once the new pattern is well-established.
Regardless of what food habits you wish to improve, I suggest you start with creating an early breakfast routine. This meal has the strongest impact on clock-setting because it follows the longest fast.
Additionally, getting breakfast into the right frame will subtly influence all your other eating choices over the rest of the day into a more positive rhythm, even if you aren’t consciously trying to change anything else.
The liver clock responds to the balance between both food volume and the length of the fasting period, so your breakfast should be a substantial meal, not a light bowl of sugary cereal with a splash of milk, or a slice of toast & jam. A balanced combination of both protein and carbohydrate is also required (one or the other alone won’t do the trick).
Let go of the idea that breakfast equals cereal, which is just nonsense. Go for a hearty bacon & egg combo (or the egg & sausage ‘english breakfast’) with a good portion of sautéed veg on the side, or have a big slice of hot frittata dense with vegetables, or a salmon & veg omelette, or have some cooked meat or fish & veg on toast. If you want the cereal factor, have a warm bowl of home-made porridge with grated apple and a handful of nuts cooked through.
When it comes to breakfast, simply think ‘hot meal’ rather than quick snack.
If you’re worried that meat will weigh you down, stick to lighter proteins like fish, eggs, yoghurt, seeds & nuts. However, in my experience, it is actually concentrated simple-carbs (like bread, pasta, and cereals) that make you feel heavy & drowsy rather than proteins, fats or complex vegetable carbs, so experiment with both and see if ‘the myth’ is really true for you.
If you’re a shift-worker, the same principles apply. You may not be able to bring your sleep cycle into the night-time, but you can bring your eating into the day-time. This is where your body wants it, regardless of when you sleep.
Have a big breakfast before you go to sleep and a good meal when you wake. If you feel peckish overnight, have lots of water, nibble some fruit and nuts, or maybe have an easy-to-digest smoothie. As your hormones adjust, you will find that over time, you will not feel as hungry overnight and your daytime appetite will get stronger.
Try it out. It will make a world of difference to your health (and weight).
Meal Timing and the Meridian Cycle
As mentioned earlier, both physical and metaphysical body patterns suggest that the best time for breakfast is in that early-morning space from about 7-9am, and that the body is ready to receive, and efficiently use, a substantial meal at that time.
In the meridian cycle, this is the time when energy is focused in the stomach meridian, whose function is not only associated with the physical stomach, but also with digestion in general and the receiving of nourishment (emotional-mental-physical). At this time of day, the physical body is optimised for strong appetite (which means good flow of digestive juices and more nutrient absorption) as well as for efficient calorie-burning from the foods eaten. Similarly, you are best positioned now, more than any other time of day, to make energetic and emotional-mental use of the experience of nourishment.
Physical digestion is enhanced through the synchronicity of energetic and physical patterns, and the relationship you have with yourself, in the context of self-care and contentment in life, is also supported. Taking the time to cook and eat a warm meal, instead of rushing out with a slice of toast in your mouth, is a reflection of your ability to make time for yourself, and your willingness to make your personal and physical needs a high priority. Imagine a parent lovingly feeding a child, with full attention and care.
The rest of your day will be all about deadlines and responsibilities to others. This is the time when it needs to be all about you. Just for a little while, be your own loving parent, so you can feel taken care of, nourished and fulfilled.
At this time, a nurturing attitude towards yourself, along with physical nourishment, strengthens the stomach meridian which then impacts your experience of life in general. Healthy stomach energy encourages feelings of contentment and tranquillity, and an appetite for life, while an unbalanced meridian is associated with feelings which reflect dissatisfaction, like emptiness, neediness, disgust, bitterness, disappointment, stress-anxiety, and apathy, as well as physical cravings and comfort eating.
Lunch comes in around 12-2pm, over which period energy is focused first in the heart meridian, and then moves into the small intestine meridian. Although not as powerful as stomach energy, when it comes to food and digestion, this is actually the next best time for food intake and use. The small intestine is where nutrients are absorbed from the food we have digested, and this time, energetically, is all about enjoying the benefits after hard work is done.
Like breakfast, lunch should be a warm, substantial meal, but the focus here is not so much on self-nurturing, but on appreciation, enjoyment and relaxation. Both heart and small intestine energy are about pulling away from the busy intensity of action, productivity and engagement with the world, and coming back to yourself for a little while. This is the time to re-fuel and re-charge … with nourishing physical food, with the pleasurable company of friends, with a walk in the park and a pause to ‘smell the roses’, or a short siesta in the sunshine.
When we align with, and strengthen the energy of these meridians, we strengthen our ability to give & receive love, compassion and forgiveness (heart) and joy, pleasure and ease (small intestine). When these meridians are unbalanced, there is a tendency towards anger and frustration (heart) or sadness and grief (small intestine).
Dinner, at 5-7pm, when energy is focused in the kidney meridian, should be a light, small meal. None of the later-in-the-day meridians really support food intake and digestion, just as the physical body itself becomes less interested in food and digestive processes as the day progresses.
The physical kidneys cleanse the blood and release waste elements into the urine. Similarly, at kidney meridian time, the focus is on ‘closing the day’ … sorting through your mental to-do list, any ‘unfinished business’, and any upsets or disappointments from the day, and letting it all go for now. It’s time to acknowledge the positives, make peace with the negatives, and then release it all for the day.
Kidney time energy draws a line between action and restfulness, and marks the beginning of the winding down process which will eventually take you into sleep. In terms of meal timing, it is also about closing the eating window with a small nourishing top-up before entering the fasting period, when more intensive healing can begin.
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