Late nights + Fatty Snacks = Big Problems
By Chris Scoggins
Those who regularly indulge in late night fast food best be wary. A recent study done by researchers at Texas A&M University indicates that the regular consumption of foods high in fat, especially late at night, can cause dysregulation of the body’s internal clock that can lead to obesity, type two diabetes, and other metabolic disorders.
“It’s really clear that saturated fatty acids are not only bad for you but also that the inflammation that they cause is central to obesity, cardiovascular disease and strokes,” says lead study author Dr. David Earnest.
In normal and healthy bodily cycles, immune cells help mitigate the inflammation caused by the buildup of these fatty acids. However, irregular meal times as well as chronic late night snacking, especially on high-fat foods, can contribute to the dysfunction of the internal clocks of the immune cells responsible for managing cellular inflammation.
“New evidence indicates that this function of our biological clock is closely related with metabolic disease,” says co-author of the study Dr. Chaodong Wu.
Wu explains that every cell has its own internal clock, and the consumption of high-fat foods, especially at irregular times of day, causes the internal clocks of the immune cells to lose time like a wristwatch with a weak battery. As the internal clocks of the immune cells are no longer in sync with the rest of the body, they become unable to effectively manage the overload of glucose and inflammation in cellular tissue. Earnest says the problem is exacerbated by irregular lifestyle schedules.
“We don’t really maintain regular schedules,” says Earnest. “For the average everyday American I would bet on a day-to-day basis that they are going to bed at different times.”
Our movement from an agrarian to an industrial society, says Earnest, is the cause of this problem. Technology has enabled society to stay up late to work or party at any time of night, which has led to irregular sleep schedules and encourages late night snacking. For those working the night shift, consistency is key.
“For someone who is doing shift work, it’s rotating shifts that present the greatest problem,” says Earnest. “Individuals who regularly work the night shift will probably be all right as long as they maintain that cycle on a week-to-week- basis and even on weekends.”
While snacking on healthy food at these times of night is not as damaging, it shouldn’t serve as a substitute for regular healthy meals.
“If you know you’re gong to be up late, there is nothing wrong with having a snack, “ says registered dietician Meghan Windham. “[However] lack of planning leads to poor choices. It doesn’t mean making a meal plan for everyday, but having small items on hand can help with some of that late night snacking.”
If snacking has to be a priority, Windham suggests keeping items on hand, such as low fat yogurt and nuts with fruits and vegetables. Windham says a heavier breakfast upfront followed by a respectively smaller lunch and dinner can help keep the body satisfied through the day and decrease nighttime snacking due to hunger. While such knowledge is beneficial, it will be ultimately up to the consumer to implement the information.
“You need to realize that if you keep doing this, it is at the cost of health. It is really about whether the individual is willing to do that,” Wu says. “If you can’t do it, you have to at least make the best out of the situation.”
The research done by Earnest and Wu may be beneficial to other areas of medicine outside of the realm of nutrition.
“The implications are not only relating to metabolic diseases and type two diabetes,” Earnest says. “Unlocking the keys as to how to connect this is going to be important in future therapies.”