Time-Restricted Eating and Shift Work

I have always been a good eater.

Before I knew about time-restricted eating, back when I was in college—waking up at 4:50 am for crew practice, staying up until 1:00 am working on problem sets, and sleeping in until noon on my days off—I could eat pretty much any food in any amount at any time of the day. And I mean anything, anytime. Think: bootleg s’mores made out of saltine crackers and ice cream toppings. Cooked in the microwave. At 6:45 in the morning.

Something changed in graduate school when I stopped having wildly irregular sleep schedules and got my circadian act together. I just… didn’t feel hungry after a certain point in the evening. And if I tried to eat something very late in the day—say, a midnight snack— it actively made me feel… kinda bleh.

My philosophy around food has always been to eat when you’re hungry. But once I was on a regular schedule, I stopped feeling the constant, slow-burning hunger I’d had back when I was up at all hours. I still felt hungry, but only at certain times of the day. The rest of the time I wouldn’t really feel hungry at all. You might say that my eating and hunger patterns became more strongly rhythmic.

Enter circadian rhythms. It makes sense to think that our bodies might be more prepared to handle food at some times (like when we’re awake), rather than others (like when we’re supposed to be asleep). And the same way light at night confuses and disrupts the central clock in our brain, so too could food around the clock confuse and disrupt the peripheral oscillators in our organs. Buying all this, how might you avoid this disruption? Eat what you want, but only over a portion of the day.

This is time-restricted eating, or TRE: the idea of keeping all your eating to the same window of time every day. Usually this window is 8-10 hours long. So if you get up and start eating at 8:00 am, you might restrict your food intake to ten hours a day and stop meals after 6:00 pm. Or you might hold off on eating until 11:00 am, in which case you’d wrap up food for the day around 7 – 9:00 pm. You might only do this for five days of the week, or you might do it every day. Regardless, this isn’t about actively trying to cut calories. It’s not about how much you eat, it’s when.

TRE came out of the work of Dr. Satchin Panda, a professor at The Salk Institute and author of The Circadian Code.

His group found that simply restricting eating windows led participants in their studies to feel more energetic, sleep better, and show improvements in cholesterol and blood sugar. He’s even got a research app you can download to participate in his group’s studies at myCircadianClock.org (note: we’re not affiliated with this project, we’re just fans).

Not everyone can manage TRE with their job (night shift workers, for one, often have to fuel whenever they can), and people with underlying health conditions should talk to doctors before giving it a try. But as someone who fell into a time-restricted eating schedule somewhat by accident, I have no plans of quitting anytime soon. I’ve lost a fair amount of weight since my undergraduate days, and it’s not because ever stopped eating s’moretines. I’ve just gotten to the point where my body has a much clearer signal than it used to for when it wants food and when it doesn’t.

So take a look at Dr. Panda’s website, or book, and consider if TRE makes sense to try out. After all, the timing might be right for you.