Adhering to a strict mealtime schedule could protect the heart from age-related disease, according to researchers at San Diego State University.
Working with fruit flies -- which have long been used to model the genetic foundations of human disease -- the research team was able to prevent heart problems that arise as a result of aging and a poor diet.
Previous research has suggested that dining on a late schedule increases risk for heart disease in addition to obesity, metabolic disease and type 2 diabetes.
"So what's happening when people eat late?" says Girish Melkani, a biologist at SDSU whose research focuses on cardiovascular physiology. "They're not changing their diet, just the time."
Timely meals for flies
In the study, one group of two-week-old fruit flies was allowed to nibble on cornmeal all day long, while another group was allowed access for 12 hours per day.
The research team recorded how much they ate, slept, any weight changes and tracked their heart health.
Three weeks passed and flies on the 12-hour program turned out healthier, without having gained as much weight as their counterparts -- despite that the two groups consumed similar amounts -- and having slept better.
Another round of testing led the scientists to conclude that flies old and young could benefit from the restricted eating program.
New, improved genes
The genes had changed as a result of the program and the team identified a set of genes that control the circadian rhythm, electron transporters called mETCs and protein-folding TCP-1 as the three genetic pathways that were involved.
Mutant strains of fruit flies with nonfunctioning TCP-1 and circadian rhythm genes reaped no benefits from the restricted diet, although mutant flies with altered mETCs benefited even more than their normal counterparts.
Lock the fridge at night
"All together, these results reinforce the idea that the daily eating pattern has a profound impact on both the body and the brain," says co-author Satchidananda Panda, a circadian rhythms expert at the Salk Institute.
The research team is optimistic that the results apply equally to humans, although Panda points out that humans eat a variety of foods whereas the fruit flies were fed just cornbread throughout the study.
In any case, Melkani, whose study was published
in the journal Science
, says the take-home message is to stop snacking at night.