Constipation. Gas. Diarrhea. Heartburn and indigestion. These GI-tract issues are among the most common conditions among all Americans. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, some 60-70 million of us suffer from one or more GI tract condition or disorder, making gastrointestinal issues some of the most common medical issues.
While frequent and long-term GI symptoms can be signs of a more serious health issue like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis, the vast majority are triggered by diet- and lifestyle-related behaviors and can be avoided with a few tweaks to your daily eating schedule.
Here’s one of the most important things you can do to keep your gastrointestinal tract functioning optimally so you can minimize those annoying and or embarrassing cranky gut symptoms: eat at consistent times every day.
A so-called “normalized” eating pattern helps your body function optimally in many ways.
First, it helps you avoid erratic eating where you starve yourself for hours then gorge on ginormous meals because you’re famished. Eating extra-large meals is one of the worst habits that can lead to gas, bloating, indigestion, and diarrhea as our bodies are not equipped to digest excessive amounts of protein, carbs, and fats at one time.
This optimized pattern also helps avoid eating too many calories later in the day, when the GI tract is less efficient.
It’s well known that glucose tolerance and metabolic rate are reduced in the afternoon and evening and are best in the morning. According to research published in the journal Nutrients, eating the majority of your daily calorie budget later in the day and evening is linked to increased risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic medical conditions. In addition, a normalized eating pattern helps temper inflammation, improves circadian rhythms, and supports the gut microbiome. Individuals who eat large dinners too close to bedtime often complain of heartburn due to reflux. (Related: Can’t Sleep? Avoid These 17 Foods That Keep You Up at Night.)
Secondly, eating three square meals and one or two snacks (only if needed) will help sync your digestion to your circadian rhythms. Eating about every four hours is ideal as the body takes about four hours to completely digest and process the macro- and micronutrients in foods. Our internal circadian clocks should be synchronized with when we eat, and when this is out of sync, the risk for GI issues and metabolic disorders increases.
Our bodies are meant to cycle in and out of the absorptive state (fed) and post-absorptive state (fasting) two to three times a day. Eating too frequently or infrequently disrupts this natural balance that the body has to digest and absorb nutrients so that your body can readily use the energy and nutrients for growth and repair. When this happens, GI issues are more common.
For the healthiest GI tract, use the meal pattern guide below as well as the calorie distribution to avoid those pesky and embarrassing GI moments.
A more normalized eating pattern means three meals and two optional snacks per day, ideally spaced apart by 2-4 hours. For example, here is a normalized eating pattern with calorie distribution pattern based on a standard, 2000-calorie diet.
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