Hate “Dieting”? Lose Weight By Focusing More on WHEN You Eat Instead of HOW MUCH You Eat

If you’re a hater of calorie counting, you can rest assured you’re not alone.  No offense to the calorie-counting lovers out there but…. you’re weird and you probably know it.

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Wouldn’t it be great if you could eat what you want and get healthier?  Maybe even lose some weight??  This is not an episode of the Twilight Zone.  If you’re willing to keep track of time, you may very well be able to improve your health and lose weight by honoring your internal time clock.  In other words, eating in sync with your circadian rhythm, the ~24 cycle that all organisms follow.  Scientists won a Nobel Prize when they discovered there is a Master Clock in base of the brain called the SCN (the suprachiasmatic nucleus) that regulates all of our internal clocks.  Every system, process and cell in our bodies follow their specific time clock, and they don’t take kindly to working over time.


Turns out, “we weren’t paying enough attention to our circadian rhythm,” says Dr. Pamela Peeke, author, speaker, athlete, and general badass.  I recently spoke to her  before her talk, “Is It Time to Eat Yet?” at the IDEA World Conference.  She says in a society where food is abundant 24/7, lifestyles are increasingly sedentary, and we don’t get enough sleep, we are wreaking life-threatening havoc on mental and physical health.  In other words, “if you don’t sync up with your internal body clock, you’re in deep doo-doo.”


One of the best known researchers in the field of eating and circadian rhythms – what is known as either “time restricted eating” (TRE) or “time restricted feeding” (TRF) – is Dr. Satchin Panda.  He is a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Science and has been compiling proof that when you eat may be more important than what you eat, assuming your don’t eat 3 meals a day from McDonald’s, Wendy’s and KFC.  If you do, that’s the first problem you need to fix.


Most of Dr. Panda’s hard data on the benefits of TRF have been done on mice but he has been getting plenty of good insight on humans without them having to live in a lab.  He created an app called “My Circadian Clock” where study participants snap pictures of their food.  Instead of posting their pics on Instagram, they send them to the researchers… along with when they ate and other info.


The gist is of his research is that not following our internal clocks can lead to weigh gain and a melange of metabolic maladies.  Many organs and systems in our bodies want to go to sleep at night and be left alone to do what sleep does…. restore and regenerate.  This includes our digestive system and the critters living in our gut.


It makes sense.  It’s only been in our recent history that we’ve been able to see at night, much less cook and eat.  For millions of years we were beholden to hunting, gathering, cooking and eating between sunrise and sundown.


Dr. Panda’s mouse studies have shown that when they were restricted to eating within a 9 to 12-hour window – even when eating a high sugar  / high saturated fat diet (aka “the Standard American Diet”), the TRF mice lost weight and got healthier while the mice who could eat whenever they wanted didn’t fare so well.  Both sets of mice were eating the same number of calories.


The TRF mice showed improved glucose metabolism, triglycerides and cholesterol levels.  They increased lean muscle mass, decreased fat mass, including fatty liver.  They even showed better gene expression and basically became healthier, thinner mice.  Their hunger hormones were also tested because you can’t just ask the mice whether they’re hungry or not.  You might assume hunger would be an issue with these time restrictions.  Surprisingly, they were not, according to their hunger hormones.  Their ghrelin (the “I’m hungry” hormone) and leptin (the “I’m full” hormone) levels went back into balance.


Researchers are finding all this good stuff is happening to us human as well when we restrict our meals to a 12-hour window or preferably less.


TRF prevents excessive weight gain, improves sleep, prevents us from aging faster, repairs cellular damage and improves cardiovascular health and performance.  And for women, there may be another amazing benefit. Dr. Ruth Patterson, a professor and cancer researcher at the University of California, San Diego found in a 7 year study of 2,500 women, fasting for 13 hours a day reduced their risk of breast cancer recurrence by about 40%!


If you restrict your eating to an 8 to 9 hour window, cool things happen to your workouts too.  You might notice your endurance and performance go up, for example.  Feedback from people in the My Circadian Clock research said their athletic performance improved when they kept to the shorter eating window, however those improvements were quickly reversed once they went back to 12 hour cycles.


This is really interesting because many people think working out on an empty stomach will make them feel less energetic.


As for why the weight loss happens, one of the reasons is obvious.  Lock up the fridge and pantry at 8 pm and you’re likely to consume less calories.  The phenomenon of late night binge eating or kicking back with booze while watching TV has a costly effect on your waistline and your health.


If you are very overweight, weight loss may be modest from doing TRF so you may need to make additional lifestyle changes.  Other than when you eat, a healthy lifestyle also includes what and how much you eat, how much sleep you get and how active you are.


However, the health benefits from making just this one change, which most people in modern society ignore, make it worth your while to keep an eye on the clock.  If you’re ready to give all those systems in your body a break and let them get some rest, here are some tips…


Tips for doing TRF:


  • The optimum eating winder is 8-9 hours and no more than 12.  Dr. Peake says she found in a cohort study of her own, that 14 hours is the sweet spot most people can do.
  • Stop eating between 6 and 8 pm.
  • Eating breakfast and lunch works best because your body has a higher metabolism during the day and slows down in the evening.
  • Try not to drink anything except for water during the fasting time.  If you must drink coffee or tea, some of the fasting effects may be lost, so drink it black.
  • Try to give yourself a good one to 2 hours before eating and finish eating 3 -4 hours before going to bed.
  • Improve the quality of the food you eat during your eating window.
  • Get instant feedback on your progress easily by using a scale like this which gives you a full Body Composition analysis including weight, % body fat and water, plus muscle & bone mass.  It’s the same one I use.


Dr. Panda hopes that even for people who have a really hard time eating healthy, at least this one strategy can offer a few favorable health outcomes.  Learn all you need to know in his book:

Jill Brown
Jill Brown
Hi, I'm JillI am a Los Angeles based Fitness + Nutrition Coach. With 20+ years of experience in teaching, training and continuing my education, I have transformed thousands of lives through fitness and healthy lifestyle changes.