As obesity and metabolic diseases rise, there is need to investigate physiological and behavioural aspects associated with their development. Circadian rhythms have a profound influence on metabolic processes, as they prepare the body to optimise energy use and storage. Moreover, food-related signals confer temporal order to organs involved in metabolic regulation. Therefore food intake should be synchronised with the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) to elaborate efficient responses to environmental challenges. Human studies suggest that a loss of synchrony between mealtime and the SCN promotes obesity and metabolic disturbances. Animal research using different paradigms has been performed to characterise the effects of timing of food intake on metabolic profiles. Therefore the purpose of the present review is to critically examine the evidence of animal studies, to provide a state of the art on metabolic findings and to assess whether the paradigms used in rodent models give the evidence to support a ‘best time’ for food intake. First we analyse and compare the current findings of studies where mealtime has been shifted out of phase from the light–dark cycle. Then, we analyse studies restricting meal times to different moments within the active period. So far animal studies correlate well with human studies, demonstrating that restricting food intake to the active phase limits metabolic disturbances produced by high-energy diets and that eating during the inactive/sleep phase leads to a worse metabolic outcome. Based on the latter we discuss the missing elements and possible mechanisms leading to the metabolic consequences, as these are still lacking.
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