Many Americans have tossed the conventional three-meals-a-day routine out the window, and replaced it with frequent chow downs spread throughout the day, new research shows.
The study found that most folks were eating for 15 or more hours while awake, and the lion's share of calories were eaten well after 6pm.
Newly designed mobile app
"Most participants thought they don't eat or drink that regularly outside their breakfast-lunch-dinner routine," said study co-author Satchidananda Panda, an associate professor in the Regulatory Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. Most people also assumed that they had been confining their eating routine to a 10- to 12-hour window, he added.
But after tracking actual eating patterns, Panda found that the "recorded fact was different".
The study's results are in the 24 September issue of Cell Metabolism.
The findings stem from a new effort to track real-world eating behaviour by means of a newly designed mobile app.
Read: Eating on the go
For three weeks, 150 healthy men and women continuously snapped photos of all the food, drinks and nutritional supplements they consumed. In turn, the app tracked all caloric intake, along with the exact time and place food was consumed, the researchers said.
All the participants were between the ages of 21 and 55, and resided in the vicinity of San Diego, the study reported. No one was asked to modify his or her normal eating habits in any way. Also, no study volunteers were dieting.
After 21 days, investigators determined that food intake was generally both erratic and continuous.
In essence, the study authors found that whenever they were awake, people ate. More than half of the participants spread their food intake over a roughly 15-hour period each day. Fasting tended to occur only during sleep, the study found.
Improved sleep and increased energy levels
What's more, less than a quarter of daily caloric intake happened before noon. By contrast, more than a third of food was consumed after 6pm., the study said.
A follow-up experiment tracked eight participants who were classified as obese and who had a habit of consuming food for periods stretching beyond 14 hours each day.
The five male and three female participants were instructed to restrict all food intake to a 10-hour block of time per day for 16 weeks. The app was used to track their eating behaviour, and this enabled all participants to log onto a website to follow their actual dietary habits in real time.
The result: Although no one had been instructed to change the kind or amount of food they normally consumed, the obese participants had cut back their daily calories by about 20 percent by the end of the four-month study period. They ended up losing an average of about 7 pounds. They also reported experiencing improved sleep and increased energy levels, the study revealed.
Panda said that at this point, the app is designed to serve as a research tool, rather than as a dietary consumer aid.
Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre at Dallas, said the study findings are "not much of a surprise".
"Basically this new study helps confirm what we already suspect," she said. "Eating sporadically and at all hours is just not good for our health.
"I see this a lot in those that I work with in my weight-loss classes," Sandon added. "There is a lack of planning and stability in their eating schedules, so eating just happens whenever.
"Many skip breakfast, have a light lunch, then find themselves hungry and tired in the afternoon and seeking a pick-me-up from the vending machine, only to get home from work ravenous and wanting to eat anything and everything with no energy to exercise. They then spend the night snacking before bed. This is a common phenomenon.
"[So] planning ahead for regularly scheduled meals is an important strategy for weight loss or just simply eating healthier," she advised.