3 ways you can keep your biological 'food clock' in synch

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
How the Holidays upset our biological 'food clock' and how to keep it in synch.

A recent finding from researchers helps explain why holiday food binging can upset our ‘food clock’, leading to weight gain and obesity. The study is the first to show what happens at a molecular level when we eat at odd times of the day and overindulge.

Scientists at University of California, San Francisco explain that late night snacking, jet lag and working night shifts can upset our food clock at a cellular level, throwing it out of synch – a phenomenon technically known as the food-entrainable oscillator.

When we change our eating habits a protein called PKCγ resets the food clock, according to the new UCSF finding that was discovered in mouse studies.

Louis Ptacek, MD, the John C. Coleman Distinguished Professor of Neurology at UCSF in a press release that it’s important to understand how eating at the wrong time of the day desynchronizes our body clock "Understanding the molecular mechanism of how eating at the "wrong" time of the day desynchronizes the clocks. The hope is that the finding can lead to treatments for disordered eating.

Even our genes keep time

The researchers explain that our genes keep time in ways that are just as complex as the mechanism of a clock.

Most organisms have a ‘master clock’ known as the "circadian oscillator" that keeps the body in rhythm with the 24-hour cycle of day and night; controlled by the area of the brain known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus.

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Even plants have a master clock that anticipates feeding time to control genes for optimal nutrition and digestion. Our body clock tells us when we’re hungry, but is geared toward eating during the day.

Researchers know the body clock can reset over time, but PKCγ protein binds to another molecule called BMAL to keep our food clock synchronized. Holiday binging interferes with the process at a cellular level.

Maybe we might find a solution for people who work night shift and travel frequently that can help keep food cravings at bay from eating at odd hours. But it’s also possible to control your own food clock by understanding what’s happening and why it’s important to maintain a regular eating schedule – especially during the holidays when weight gain is prevalent.

When we eat at night our digestion is slower, making it more difficult for the body to clear fats and sugars. Night shift workers are known to be at risk for obesity and related diseases, found in multiple studies.

To keep your food clock in synch:

  1. Eat at regular times of the day. If you work nights, consume your main meal mid-day and before your shift starts.
  2. To keep your food clock in synch when traveling, consider fasting. Your hunger pangs will pass. Don’t eat on the plane. Drink water to stave off hunger.
  3. Force yourself to get back into your normal eating routine as soon as possible. It takes time to reset your biological food clock.

With discipline you stop a vicious cycle of hunger that comes from holiday eating and can lead night time food foraging and weight gain. Researchers now understand how our genes control our food clock.

"PKCγ participates in food entrainment by regulating BMAL1"
Luoying Zhang, et al.
December 11, 2012

Image credit: Morguefile