- A new study has found that meeting 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 poorer cognitive health.
- The study also found that tilting your energy intake toward one meal or another is not associated with rapid cognitive decline, but it does benefit your cognition as well as eating three balanced meals.
Food is fuel. It provides us with the energy our bodies need to function as well as to stay healthy.
Previous research has focused on how the quality of the energy – the food – we consume affects our health, and experts have investigated this.
However, there has been little research exploring the ways in which the distribution of our daily energy intake may affect long-term cognitive health, and whether it has any effect on dementia risk.
To better understand the effects of energy intake and meal timing on cognition, a new study takes a look at the potential impact on cognitive decline of different meal schedules, or temporal patterns of energy intake (TPEI).
The results showed that eating three balanced meals each was associated with better cognitive function, compared to other, less evenly distributed methods of total energy intake, or TEI.
“To our knowledge, this study is one of the few population studies that explore the association of TPEI and cognitive decline, although accumulating studies have linked TPEI to health outcomes, including
The study also showed that skipping breakfast was associated with worse cognitive function and faster cognitive decline.
The study was recently published in metabolism for life.
The researchers drew their conclusions from an analysis of data from the 1997-2006 China Health and Nutrition Survey.
That data included the meal habits of 3,342 people in China, and the survey collected up to four repeated entries over 10 years. The subjects were at least 55 years old, with a mean age of 62.2 years.
The authors indicate that 61.2% lived in rural areas, and 13.6% had graduate degrees or higher.
People with severe cognitive decline were excluded from the study.
At the beginning of the study period, each participant received a nutritional assessment and a telephone cognitive test in which they were assessed for immediate and delayed word retrieval, counting back, and agility when subtracting 7 from the given numbers.
Cognitive scores ranged from 0 points to 27 points, with 27 points representing the highest level of cognitive health.
Researchers categorized the timing of individuals’ meals into six eating patterns:
- evenly distributed: People balance their energy intake with three roughly equivalent meals a day. They consumed 28.5% of their daily energy at breakfast, 36.3% at lunch, and 33.8% at dinner.
- Breakfast: People ate three meals, but consumed the largest share of the energy, 49.5% at breakfast.
- lunch: People ate three meals, but consumed the largest share of the energy, 64.3%, at lunch.
- Dominant dinner: People ate three meals, but consumed the largest share of the energy, 64.5% at dinner.
- Rich in snacks: People consumed 36.8% of their TEI from snack foods.
- Skip breakfast: People ate little or no breakfast, and consumed only 5.9% of their TEI.
The breakfast-skipping pattern was associated with a cognitive decline of 0.14 cognitive test points per year, compared to the equally distributed pattern.
No other similar decrease was observed for the other patterns.
Dr. Clifford Siegel, MD, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, described this finding for: Medical news today as “fantastic”.
“I think taking it home is that skipping a meal is even worse if you choose to skip the meal at breakfast,” he said.
However, when the researchers adjusted the potential TPEIs into only four patterns — evenly distributed, breakfast-dominated, lunch-dominated, and dinner-dominated — all but the first were associated with lower cognitive function.
However, none of them were associated with accelerated loss of function.
According to Dr. Siegel, the study may “unintentionally support that we have excess calories, and assuming that we have excess calories, we are obese. And I think that’s where most of this kind of research has been done, on extra calories in Public Health “.
However, note that the study is generally consistent with other research stating that “dividing up your energy and eating it even at meals improves cognitive function in the short term.”
“This supports what we’ve heard about other medical conditions.”
Dr. Hoon Ki-Sung, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Toronto, explained to MNT:
“We have two different types of internal clocks (circadian rhythm). One is located in the brain (central circadian clock), and the other clock is in some peripheral tissues, including fat, liver, intestine and retina (peripheral circadian clock). The central clock is primarily driven by light, the peripheral clock can be regulated by multiple factors, including the central clock and the feed.”
Dr. Song suggests that daily nutrition may refer to a “circadian rhythm diet or circadian diet.”
This means, he said, that “you keep feeding rhythms in sync with your internal clock.” He pointed out that eating in this way can include three meals “in addition to the meal.” [or] Energy intake between meal times.
The Western schedule of three meals a day grew out of the needs of employers and workers during the Industrial Revolution. Before that, two large meals a day, based on household and agricultural tasks, were more common.
“I think common sense says you should eat a meal before the time of day when you will be most crowded,” Dr. Siegel added. “Some people are busy in the morning, which is why they eat a big breakfast [is often] advised, especially for school-age children.”
Whatever the case, more research is still needed on the long-term benefits of meal timing on cognitive health.
“Cognitive issues are multifactorial, and there is still very limited understanding,” Dr. Siegel concluded.