Feeding the Body’s Internal Clock: Timing Matters

What you put on guests’ plates—and when you serve it—can help attendees adjust circadian rhythms and perform at their best

When it comes to feeding your attendees, the timing and contents of the menu matter.

No matter the size of a crowd, it’s likely that people are coming from different areas—and maybe distant time zones. That means their circadian rhythms, the body’s sleep-wake cycle that influences mood, alertness and immunity, among other vital functions, may be thrown off (just look for a sea of yawns or droopy eyelids in your midst).

So it’s crucial that planners help everyone’s clocks realign as quickly as possible. The meals provided for your guests can play a key role. In fact, researchers have found that food can be even more influential than exposure to light in supporting the body’s timekeeper. 

“When the timing of meals does not match with the sleep-wake cycle well, there’s a disconnect between the different clocks that we have in basically all the cells of our body,” Dr. Frank Scheer, a Harvard University sleep specialist, told National Public Radio.

Consider these tips when planning and scheduling snacks and meals:

Offer breakfast or an early snack: Morning food intake helps one’s internal clock recognize—or even “reset”—the time of day when the body ramps up insulin production to turn glucose from the carbohydrates you eat into energy. Consider serving oatmeal, a high-fiber complex carb that’s more slowly digested, and protein-rich Greek yogurt so guests can tackle what’s next with satisfied (but not overly full) stomachs.


Consume most food before 3 p.m.: Lunch should be the main meal. The reason: The body’s metabolism slows in late afternoon, meaning that your largest entrée shouldn’t be dinner. A 2018 study by the University of Alabama at Birmingham went a step further, concluding that all meals should be eaten by 3 p.m. to align with the body’s circadian clock. While having dinner midafternoon is a stretch for most, this research reminds us to make lunch count.   



Focus on light, lean fare: Ever wonder why you feel sluggish after an afternoon cheeseburger and fries? It’s because carbs and fats make you drowsy. Avoid heavy foods such as dairy and fried meats. Feature lean proteins—think grilled chicken or salmon—and fiber-rich vegetables (try broccoli, carrots or sweet potatoes). Quinoa, brown rice and other whole grains also help you feel fuller longer, a good way to curb snacking.


Keep everyone hydrated: Sure, your guests are going to want coffee. But offer liquid alternatives that are even more conducive to alertness, too. Push water and herbal tea in lieu of caffeinated sodas and alcohol, both of which promote dehydration—a hazard the jet-lagged set is likely facing already—and disrupt sleep. Furthermore, a 2014 study found that water deprivation can affect mood, thus interrupting the sleep-wake cycle.    

Working late? Serve dinner early: If time parameters dictate, offer a light meal or healthy treat in the late afternoon. Consider energy-boosting snacks such as almonds, apples and hummus, as well as low-carb main dish options. If the schedule doesn’t permit an early dinner, send your guests into the night with a dessert of tart cherries; they’re high in melatonin, helping to trigger sleep signals. Whatever you serve, watch the clock: Metabolic health improves when all daily meals are consumed within an 8- to 10-hour window, according to Dr. Satchin Panda, author of The Circadian Code.