The number of people suffering from dementia is expected to triple by 2050, with low and middle-income communities taking the brunt. Establishing consistent research findings to help scientists pinpoint relationships between disease progression and factors such as sleep and diet continues to be an uphill battle. However, a new Chinese study from Zhejiang University offers promising results. Scientists say that eating three larger meals per day is associated with greater cognitive function than spreading out intake across five smaller meals.
Epidemiological studies have studied temporal distribution of eating patterns related to diabetes and hypertension risk in the past. Regarding brain function, there have been few. Previous studies in animals demonstrated that meal disruption can change the brain’s clock rhythm, specifically in the hippocampus, which is the memory hub.
Another short-term human intervention trial including 96 young adults showed that dividing equal amounts of food into four meals between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. could improve cognitive function compared to only eating twice between the same hours. More expansive, long-term research on this topic remained scarce until now.
The research team pulled data from 3,342 people at least 55 years old from nine different Chinese provinces. They used algorithm to identify six patterns of temporal distribution of energy intake: evenly-distributed, breakfast-dominant, lunch-dominant, dinner-dominant, snack-rich, and breakfast-skipping.
They then assessed cognitive function using the modified Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status (TICS-m), which organizes functions by a point system. Immediate and delayed word recalls are worth 20 points, backward counting 2 points, and serial -7 subtraction testing is worth 5 points. Higher cognitive scores (ranging from 0-27) signify greater cognitive function. To tie eating patterns and cognitive score together, patterns were assessed over a 10-year period. These assessments were adjusted for age, gender, residence, total energy, physical activity, smoking status, alcohol consumption, household income, education level, and body mass index (BMI) to account for limitations.
Those with evenly-distributed eating patterns had notably higher long-term cognitive function scores than those with irregular temporal distribution of energy intake. This was most commonly identified in participants part of the breakfast-skipping group.
From this, the team concludes that skipping breakfast may be detrimental. They emphasize that optimal, timely nutrition is crucial for cognitive health and dementia prevention.
It’s often said that breakfast is “the most important meal of the day,” and here’s more proof that the saying might just be right.
This study is published in the journal Life Metabolism.