A new smartphone app has shown that Americans have erratic eating habits, instead of preferring the recommended 3 meals per day.
The findings were collected after developing a smartphone app called “MyCircadianClock”, enabling study participants to photograph every food or drink they had before consuming it. 156 volunteers from San Diego, aged between 21 and 55, took part in the trial.
The meal photos they took were instantly directed to a central server that aggregated the information. The data was also immediately erased from the users’ phones, preventing them to keep a history of their behavior and alter it in any way.
This was a unique approach, given that prior surveys require subjects to write down what they eat and drink in food diaries, which are sometimes highly inaccurate. Using this method, participants managed to take photos of what they ingested nearly 90% of the time.
The traditional view was that usually people have the classic breakfast, lunch and dinner, and possibly a snack or two.
However, according to lead researcher Satchidananda Panda, the majority of people eat “frequently and erratically” and don’t have pre-established meal times. Instead, they snack all day long, having between 3 and 10 “eating events” consisting in a variety of random items, in unusual combinations.
The average length of time between the first morning bite and the last nightcap or dinner is about 14 hours and 45 minutes, which suggests that people actually eat and drink across all waking hours. Just 10% of the subjects limit themselves to a 12-hour window dedicated to eating.
The time between meals is usually around 3 hours, although some subjects eat once every 1.5 hours, and others once in 6 hours. On average, participants have a daily food intake of 1,947 calories, which is 23% more than the recommended amount for maintaining their weight.
Less than a quarter of daily calorie intake happens before noon, and 37.5% of it occurs after 6 p.m. Approximately 12.2% of all daily calories are actually consumed after 9 p.m.
In the next stage of the experiment, experts invited 8 overweight participants to restrict their meals to a 10 to 12 time frame every day, and not consume anything outside that stretch. After 16 weeks, it was established that these subjects had dropped 7.2 pounds on average, and reported better sleeping patterns and heightened levels of energy.
Researchers also discovered that these individuals’ calorie intake had decreased by 20%. This may be because certain meals are eaten at fixed times of the day (for example, alcohol is preferred in the evening, and coffee in the morning), which causes some of them to be excluded from the diet when limiting consumption to a certain length of time.
Therefore, study authors believe these results might shed new light on ways to reduce weight, by setting a time frame when people are allowed to eat. It appears that erratic eating habits disrupt circadian rhythms, leaving metabolic organs out of sync and more prone to obesity and disease.
According to lab experiments, animals who had access to food 24/7 were more corpulent, slept worse, had higher cholesterol levels, decreased liver function and more heart issues. While critics suggest that these findings may not apply to humans as well, study authors insist that introducing such a change may be “a very simple intervention” for those who spend too much of their time eating.
Researchers from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies hope to expand the studies to one million Americans, from more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, to test if current findings hold true. In the meantime, MyCircadianClock app has been updated for iPhone and Android users, and can be downloaded by those interested in getting feedback regarding their eating habits.
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