Reduce Heart Disease Risk with Regular Meals
People may lower their risk of heart attack or stroke by eating frequently and consistently throughout the day, according to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2004:58:1071–7). Eating frequent meals reduces total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and improves insulin resistance, both of which are known risk factors for developing heart disease.
The new study was completed in two phases. In the first phase, nine healthy women between ages 18 and 42 were randomly assigned to consume six regular meals a day for two weeks or an irregular meal pattern consisting of alternating between three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine meals a day for the same duration. After phase 1 of the study, all women returned to their usual diet for 14 days. In phase 2, the two treatment groups switched to the other meal pattern for an additional two weeks. A meal was defined as any calorie-containing food consumed with at least one hour between eating intervals. No specific foods were eliminated or restricted during the study. Blood tests were performed at the start and end of each phase. Each blood test measured glucose, insulin, total cholesterol, LDL and HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and triglycerides after fasting and then three hours after consuming a high-carbohydrate drink.
Peak insulin, total cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol levels were significantly higher after participants ate irregularly than after they ate regularly. No significant differences in glucose, HDL cholesterol, or triglycerides were observed with the different meal patterns. These findings suggest that eating frequent, regular meals significantly improves cardiovascular disease risk factors, which may lead to long-term reductions in heart disease and mortality. However, other studies are needed to determine if the long-term outcomes are affected by eating more frequently and consistently.
Some studies have shown that Western cultures are increasingly moving away from eating regular meals. This trend may adversely affect health by altering the way the body breaks down fat and sugars, leading to increases in insulin and cholesterol. Insulin stimulates an enzyme that is involved in producing cholesterol, so that abnormally high insulin levels can cause an increase in total cholesterol. One Japanese study showed that total cholesterol levels have increased significantly in adolescents over the past few decades, which has been partly attributed to irregular food intake. This suggests the risk of developing heart disease and stroke may begin much earlier in life than was previously suspected.
Some people report more energy, improved mood, and better cognitive function after changing their dietary pattern to eating more frequently and regularly. Other potential benefits of eating regular meals may include diabetes prevention. The authors of the new study suggest that eating irregularly may lead to a persistent elevation of insulin in the blood, which can lead to higher blood sugar levels. This condition, called insulin resistance, is a known risk factor for adult-onset diabetes. People with diabetes or those who take medications that lower blood sugar levels should consult their healthcare provider before making any dietary changes.
Darin Ingels, ND, MT (ASCP), received his bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and his Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. Dr. Ingels is the author of The Natural Pharmacist: Lowering Cholesterol (Prima, 1999) and Natural Treatments for High Cholesterol (Prima, 2000). He currently is in private practice at New England Family Health Associates located in Southport, CT, where he specializes in environmental medicine and allergies. Dr. Ingels is a regular contributor to Healthnotes and Healthnotes
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