- A new study shows that meeting our daily energy needs through three relatively similar meals may be the best way to avoid cognitive decline.
- Skipping breakfast is associated with a decline in cognitive health, according to the study.
- The study also found that tilting your energy intake toward one or the other meal is not associated with rapid cognitive decline, but it doesn’t benefit your cognition and balanced three meals.
Food is fuel. It provides us with the energy our bodies need to function and stay healthy too.
Previous research has focused on how the quality of energy — the food — we consume can impact our health, and experts have cardiovascular and metabolic health outcomes associated with eating.
However, there is little research on how the distribution of our daily energy intake can influence long-term cognitive health and whether it has an impact on the risk of developing dementia.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 55 million people suffer from dementia worldwide, with 10 million new cases being diagnosed each year. As the world population ages — the proportion of older people is steadily increasing — WHO estimates that 78 million people will suffer from dementia by 2030 and 139 million people by 2050.
To better understand the effects of energy intake and meal timing on cognition, a new study is investigating the potential effects of different meal plans or temporal patterns of energy intake (TPEI) on cognitive decline.
The results show that eating three balanced meals at a time is associated with better cognitive function compared to other, less evenly distributed methods of consuming total energy intake (TEI).
“To our knowledge, this study is one of the few population-based studies investigating the association between TPEI and cognitive decline, although more and more studies have linked TPEI to health outcomes, including obesity, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular health,” the authors wrote.
The study also shows that skipping breakfast results in poorer cognitive function and faster cognitive
The study was recently published in Life Metabolism.
Investigating the eating habits of almost a decade
The researchers drew their conclusions from an analysis of data from the China Health and Nutrition Survey 1997—2006.
These data included the eating habits of 3,342 people in China, for whom the survey had collected up to four repeat entries over a period of 10 years. The people were at least 55 years old and the average age was 62.2 years.
The authors note that 61.2% lived in rural areas and 13.6% had a high school degree or higher degree.
People with severe cognitive decline were excluded from the study.
At the start of the study period, each participant was given both a nutrition assessment and a telephone cognitive test, which assessed them for their immediate and delayed word recall, backcount, and agility when subtracting 7 from the numbers given.
Cognitive scores ranged from 0 points to 27 points, with 27 points representing the highest level of cognitive health.
Effects of different energy intake levels on meal plans
The researchers divided the timing of meals into six eating habits:
- Evenly distributed: People balanced their energy from taking three roughly equivalent meals per day. They spent 28.5% of their daily energy at breakfast, 36.3% at lunch and 33.8% at dinner.
- Breakfast dominates: People ate three meals but consumed the largest share of energy, 49.5% at breakfast.
- Dominating at lunch: People ate three meals but consumed the largest share of energy, 64.3% at lunch.
- Dinner-dominant: People ate three meals but consumed the largest share of energy, 64.5% at dinner.
- Rich in snacks: People consumed 36.8% of their TEI from snacks.
- Skip breakfast: People ate little or no breakfast and only consumed 5.9% of their TEI.
The pattern of skipping breakfast was associated with a cognitive decline of 0.14 cognitive test points per year compared to the evenly distributed pattern.
Other similar declines were not observed in other patterns.
Dr. Clifford Segil, neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, who was not involved in the study, Medical News Today described this finding as “fascinating.”
“I think the takeaway would be that skipping a meal is worse if you skip the meal at breakfast,” he said.
However, when the researchers modified the possible TPEI in just four patterns — evenly distributed, breakfast-dominant, midday dominant and dinner-dominant — all but the first was associated with lower cognitive function.
However, none of them was associated with an accelerated loss of function.
Possible underlying mechanisms
According to Dr. Segal, the study “could unintentionally support that we have excess calories, and assuming we have excess calories, we have obesity. And I think this is where most of this kind of research was done on excess calories in general.”
Yet he found that the study is generally consistent with other research that suggests that “splitting your energy and taking it in regular meals improves short-term cognitive function.”
“That supports what we’ve heard about other diseases.”
Previous research has shown that meal timing affects the body’s circadian clock. In mammals, the circadian clock is located in two clusters of nerve cells, the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN), which are located in a region at the base of the brain called the anterior hypothalamus.
Dr. Hoon-Ki Sung, Ph.D., associate professor at the Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology at the University of Toronto, explained to MNT:
“We have two different types of internal clock (circadian rhythm). One is in the brain (central clock or central circadian clock) and the other clock is in some peripheral tissues, including fat, liver, intestines, and retina (peripheral circadian clock). While the central clock is primarily regulated by light, the peripheral clock can be regulated by several factors, including the central clock and the supply.”
Dr. Sung suggests that the circadian diet could refer to “a diurnal rhythm diet or a circadian diet.”
He said that meant “you keep feeding rhythms synchronized with your internal clock.” He noted that eating this way can include three meals, “as well as energy intake between meals.”
Other studies have the timing of meals with a short-term improvement in cognitive function
The Western schedule of three meals a day was born out of the needs of employers and employees during the industrial revolution. Before that, two large meals a day, based on household and agricultural tasks, were more common.
“I think common sense is that you should have a meal before the time of day when you’re going to be busiest,” Dr. Segal added. “Some people are busy in the morning, so a big breakfast is often recommended, especially for school-age children.”
Be that as it may, more research is needed on the long-term benefits of meal timing for cognitive health.
“Cognitive problems are multifactorial and there is still very limited understanding,” Dr. Segil concluded.