Routines are predictable and boring, so why not embrace the uncertainty of a fluid schedule? At least, that’s what we like to think, because the adventure of leaving the day to chance appears to be the more glamorous option. But apart from the fact that sort of attitude is likely to leave you disappointed, routine has a lot going for it. Not only do a few fixtures in your day bring order to life, but researchers say routine goes a long way to improving our health.
On the mental health front, following a set pattern every day can help alleviate bipolar disorder, ADHD and insomnia. The research is equally impressive when it comes to diet and nutrition: People who eat at regular times and pack lunches instead of eating out have healthier diets overall, American scientists found in a 2015 study of 1,013 university and college students.
Survey participants who ate a regular breakfast and evening meal were less likely to eat fast food than people who skipped meals or ate on the move. “Meal routines and practices were significantly associated with young adults’ dietary patterns, suggesting that ways in which individuals structure mealtimes and contextual characteristics of eating likely influence food choice,” Dr Melissa N. Laska of the University of Minnesota and her colleagues wrote in the journal Public Health Nutrition.
Establishing a healthy rhythm by keeping regular hours for meals, and eating calmly, preferably alongside your family may play an important role in our dietary patterns and in our long-term health, they wrote.
Limit meals and snacks to a 10- to 12-hour time frame during the day, and avoid eating later in the evening.
Marlene Cornes Marsh, a Senior Clinical Dietitian with Dubai Health Authority, explains how habit works. “A nutrition routine is an important part of leading a healthy lifestyle. Following a daily routine can help you establish priorities, keep track of goals and make you healthier,” she tells Better Health. “What you eat and what time you eat both play a significant role in establishing the perfect routine that would undoubtedly lead to a healthy lifestyle. Simple changes in your diet can have a major impact on your physical health and mental well-being.”
Earlier this year, researchers at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge and the University of Manchester were able to identify why it’s not just what you eat but when you eat that’s important. As you may have guessed — it’s got to do with insulin, the hormone that regulates how we break down carbohydrates, fats and protein and promotes the absorption of carbohydrates into liver, fat and skeletal muscle cells — and its impact on our body clock.
The researchers found that when mice were given insulin at the wrong biological time, such as when they would normally be dozing off, their normal circadian rhythms changed and they were less able to distinguish between day and night. If you’ve ever had a fitful night’s sleep after that midnight meal delivery, you’ve probably experienced a similar feeling.
“We already know that modern society poses many challenges to our health and well-being, such as shift work, sleep deprivation and jet lag, disrupt our body clock,” Dr David Bechtold, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester who was involved in the research, said in a media statement. “It is now becoming clear that circadian disruption is increasing the incidence and severity of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes.”
The research builds on previous studies showing that animals who were forced to eat when they would normally be sleeping gained weight and suffered metabolic disturbances, which disrupt normal bodily functions and destabilise biochemical levels. However, science has so far been unable to explain how the body clock senses and responds to meal timing, making it difficult to provide medical advice or interventions that might alleviate the problem.
Marsh offers a few takeaways that UAE residents can put into practice in their daily lives. “Plan meals and snacks for specific times throughout the day to manage hunger,” she advises. She reiterates the commonly advised routine of eating three balanced meals and two snacks a day at set times in order to promote stable blood sugar and satiety to prevent overeating, and consequently, an unhealthy weight.
“Limit meals and snacks to a 10-12 hour time frame during the day, and avoiding eating later in the evening. For example, eat only between 6am to 6pm or 7am to 5pm. If you exercise in the morning or afternoon, do so at least one hour before your meals.”
As you settle down to everyday life after the summer break, then, it’s worth remembering that leaving everything to chance is a sure-fire recipe for disruption. So welcome the new school year and its predictable patterns — your body and your health will thank you. As they say, a failure to plan is a plan to fail.