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Do you ‘eat to live’ or ‘live to eat’? Our individual relationship with food is complex, often changed by influences such as cost, availability or peer pressure. Our appetite, or, the desire for food is a major stimulus for eating but even this isn’t fixed and changes as we age. We know that what we choose to eat affects our health, including our risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Throughout life, our food is not just a fuel, but an enjoyed social and cultural experience. Appetite is a major influence to what and when we eat – we are all experts in food, because we do it every day, so we should consider every eating episode as a chance for nutrition to positively benefit our health. Yet recent nutrition research is showing that when we eat may be just as important as what we eat to influence health. So, does it really matter when you eat your largest meal? Recent research suggests eating most of our calories in the evening – the pattern most common in the UK – may also be linked to obesity. We’re not alone in eating late. As our lifestyles have become more demanding and irregular, so have our meal patterns. Compared with 30 years ago, more meals are skipped, or eaten on the go, and later in the day. The underlying mechanisms are not entirely clear, but it is suggested that inconsistent or unusual eating patterns, working night shifts, and jet lag can disrupt our internal clocks, which in turn affects our appetites and digestion. Also, when we eat irregularly or skip meals we also tend to make bad food choices, because we’re so hungry we choose less healthy foods or larger portions. Ultimately, it is the type of foods we choose and portion sizes that have the biggest impact on our health.

We live in an ‘obesogenic environment’ where the working population eat up to two meals a day at a desk and this often means eating breakfast on the go. Our lifestyle choices associated with eating behaviour and physical activity contribute to the development of obesity. Starting the day with quality nutrition may impact on your food choices later in the day; start as you mean to continue. Although habitual breakfast consumers tend to be leaner, targeting one eating episode (breakfast time) has provided to be largely unsuccessful for weight control. We need to consider the whole diet rather than single foods or meals. An occasional croissant or Danish pastry is not going to make you obese in one meal, but consuming energy dense foods along with a sedentary lifestyle, over time, will. Chrono-nutrition is an evolving and developing field of science which is beginning to show how our ancient biology is in conflict with our modern lifestyle. The mechanisms behind why time of eating may influence health are not entirely clear.

I support Nutritank because nutrition is an essential part of medical education and application. I am passionate about nutrition for health and interested in making my research accessible to share with a wide variety of stakeholders, to include health professionals, media, general public and policy makers.

Professor Alex Johnstone

Professor Alexandra Johnstone is based at The Rowett Institute, part of the University of Aberdeen, School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition. She leads a research team to investigate the influence of appetite across the lifecourse in humans.

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