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The Time of Day You Eat Certain Foods May Affect Your Heart Health

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Key Takeaways

  • Eating starchy snacks after meals was linked to at least a 50% increased risk of early death according to a new study.
  • Conversely, eating fruits, vegetables, and dairy at certain times of the day was linked to a reduced risk of early death.
  • Experts say these findings further bolster the idea that eating to our circadian rhythm offers health benefits.

If you're worried about your cardiovascular disease risk, many recommendations typically suggest following a heart-healthy diet. But it turns out, what you eat may not be the only important factor. According to new research, the time of day you eat certain foods may affect your heart too.

Eating starchy snacks after meals was linked to at least a 50% increased risk of early death and a 45% increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD)-related death, according to a new study.

Conversely, the results also show that eating fruits, vegetables, legumes, and dairy at certain times of the day may reduce the risk of early death from certain causes. 

“It's no surprise that consuming more fruits and veggies is a good idea,” Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, a New Jersey-based registered dietitian and author of “The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club” tells Verywell.

This study primarily investigated the relationship of meal and snack patterns across a day with cancer, cardiovascular disease, and all‐cause risk of death. These results were published in June in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

What Kind of Meals Offered the Most Health Benefits?

Researchers analyzed the results of 21,503 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2003 to 2014.

The types of food participants included in their diet at certain times a day were categorized by: 

  • Breakfast categories were Western breakfast, starchy breakfast, and fruit breakfast. 
  • Lunch categories were Western lunch, vegetable lunch, and fruit lunch.
  • Dinner categories were Western dinner, vegetable dinner, and fruit dinner.
  • Snack categories were grain snack, starchy snack, fruit snack, and dairy snack. 

Participants in the Western lunch group consumed the most servings of refined grain, solid fats, cheese, added sugars, and cured meat. Researchers linked this kind of lunch to a 44% increased risk of dying from heart and vascular disease.

Eating a fruit-based lunch appeared to be the most protective—leading to a 34% reduced risk of CVD death. Participants in this group consumed the most servings of whole grain, fruits, yogurt, and nuts.

Meanwhile, participants in the vegetable-based dinner group consumed the most servings of vegetables and legumes. Researchers linked this kind of dinner to a 23% reduced risk of CVD-related death.

Timing May Be Important

Researchers found that eating snacks high in starch after any meal was associated with a 50 to 52% increased risk of death all around. Snacking may not be the issue, however. Because participants who ate a fruit snack after breakfast experienced lower death risks.

Eating a dairy-based snack in the evening, but not after lunch, was associated with a reduced risk of CVD death too, possibly due to dairy's beneficial impact on sleep quality, the researchers hypothesize.

Harris-Pincus says that this data “seems to reinforce that eating according to our circadian rhythm has health benefits.”

However, the study was retrospective in nature and was based on self-reported data, which can potentially be unreliable. 

Additionally, Harris-Pincus notes that the researchers “only used two dietary recalls in two weeks to predict long‐term survival status in the general population, who may change dietary habits over time. Much more research would need to be done in this area in order to make blanket recommendations for meal timing and composition.”

What This Means For You

It's too soon to recommend eating certain foods at different times to reap health benefits. However, it's always a good idea to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet, while limiting starchy snacks.

How to Eat the Right Foods at the Right Times

If you want to implement some of these findings in your day-to-day, having a fruit snack after breakfast can be your first step. Try packing some fresh and washed berries in your bag or grabbing a fresh pear when you are running out the door to go to work.

Frozen and dried fruit can offer health benefits too as long as the ones you choose do not contain added sugars. 

At lunchtime, try limiting “Western-style” meals that include processed meats, refined grains, and added sugars. Instead, focus on fruits, whole grains, nuts, and yogurt.

A parfait made with no-sugar-added Greek yogurt, a handful of walnuts, and fresh berries is a great option. You can enjoy some whole-grain crackers on the side too. 

“This study highlights that plant-based dinners with colorful produce & legumes are associated with better health outcomes,” DJ Blatner, RDN, CSSD, author of The Flexitarian Diet tells Verywell. “One of the easiest ways to get more legumes into dinner meals is using tempeh, a versatile soybean superfood. Tempeh can make everyone’s favorite dinner foods like tacos, stir-fry, and pizza more plant-based."

When snack time rolls around, try choosing snacks that aren't starchy like nuts, seeds, fruit, dairy, and vegetables.

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  1. Wei W, Jiang W, Huang J, et al. Association of meal and snack patterns with mortality of all‐cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2003 to 2014. J Am Heart Assoc. Published online June 23, 2021. doi:10.1161/JAHA.120.020254