Health & Fitness

Timing of your daily meals could increase cancer risk

family meal time
A longer lapse between meals and sleep time allows the body ample time to process the food more efficiently. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Eating your supper late could raise your risk of developing breast and prostate cancer, a new study has warned.

Scientists have found that eating supper early or going to bed two hours after dinner are associated with a lower risk of breast and prostate cancer.

In a new study published in the International Journal of Cancer, researchers revealed that people who take their evening meal before nine o’clock or wait at least two hours after eating before going to sleep, have a 20 per cent lower risk of developing the cancers.

This is unlike individuals who have supper after 10 o’clock or those who eat then go to bed shortly afterwards.

The research, conducted by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), included data from over 4,000 participants from different parts of Spain.

It sought to assess whether meal timing could be associated with risk of breast and prostate cancer.

Just as is the case globally, the two are the most common types of cancer affecting women and men, respectively in Kenya.

According to the Ministry of Health (MoH) statistics, they contribute immensely to the approximately 37,000 new cancer cases and 28,500 cancer deaths that Kenya records each year.

The Spain study is the first to analyse the association between cancer risk and the timing of meals and sleep.

In the past, studies looking at the link between food and cancer tended to mainly focus on dietary patterns or the effects of certain foods on the disease.

For instance, scientists have looked at the impact of red meat, fruits or vegetables on cancer. They have also researched on the association between food intake and obesity, which increases cancer risk.

However, little attention has been paid to other factors surrounding the everyday act of eating such as the timing of food intake as well as activities people do before and after meals.

During the research period, study participants were interviewed about their meal timing, sleep habits and chronotype (preference for morning or evening activities) as well as their adherence to cancer prevention recommendations.

"Our study concludes that adherence to diurnal eating patterns is associated with a lower risk of cancer," said Manolis Kogevinas, ISGlobal researcher and lead author of the study.

He noted that the findings of the research highlight the importance of assessing eating and sleeping times when conducting studies on diet and cancer. “This could have implications for cancer prevention recommendations, which currently do not take meal timing into account. The impact could be especially important in cultures where people have supper late."

Dora Romaguera, another author of the study, stated: "Further research in humans is needed to understand the reasons behind these findings, but everything seems to indicate that the timing of sleep affects our capacity to metabolise food."

The body has an internal clock, called the circadian rhythm, which it uses to schedule major body functions.

Health experts note that our lifestyles should thus be aligned to this rhythm so as to enhance optimal functioning of body processes, which is important for disease prevention, including cancer.

When it comes to feeding, research suggests that many aspects of food metabolism (breakdown) are at their best in the morning and worst as the night progresses.

It is for this reason that nutritionists stress on not just having a light dinner but also having an earlier one.

A longer lapse between meals and sleep time allows the body ample time to process the food more efficiently. This enables it to effectively get rid of excess calories by breaking down fat, which increases cancer risk.

“If large meals are eaten late at night, it just sits in the body where it will be converted to fat as we are never active at night. We spend most of the time sleeping,” said Ms Susan Musilu, nutritionist at Bonsana Nutrition and Wellness Centre.

She added that eating large meals at night can also cause indigestion, which interferes with sleep, especially among people with heartburn and other stomach acidity problems.

Affected individuals usually wake up more frequently at night. Yet, lack of adequate sleep also makes people vulnerable to cancer.

Health experts warn that those who eat dinner late are also more likely to suffer from non-dipper hypertension.

This is a state where blood pressure fails to drop properly overnight hence preventing the body from resting well. This can lead to heart disease or strokes in extreme cases.

It is thus advisable for people to stick to a regular eating and sleeping time for good health. Adults are supposed to sleep for about seven to eight hours. But they should get into bed at least two hours after dinner.