"It's not just what you eat, but also when you eat it," say researchers who suggest that consuming saturated fats at particular times may put internal body clocks out of synch, also causing inflammation.

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Eating food rich in saturated fat at night may play havoc with local circadian rhythms.

The findings are published in the journal EBioMedicine.

Cells throughout the body have their own internal clocks. These clocks regulate the timing of important cellular processes that are essential if the body is to function correctly. They also help to control inflammatory responses.

Inflammation is a normal reaction of the body, offering protection in times of injury or invading bacteria.

However, a high-fat diet can lead to chronic, low-grade inflammation, and this has been linked with a higher risk of disorders such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and rheumatoid arthritis.

Researchers from the Texas A&M Health Science Center and Texas A&M AgriLife have been looking into what makes saturated fats "bad."

Saturated fats affect immune response

David Earnest, PhD, who is also lead author of the current study, has previously found signs that consuming excessive amounts of fat causes the clocks in immune cells to slow down, reducing their ability to "tell" accurate time.

Fast facts about metabolic syndrome
  • Metabolic syndrome is estimated to affect 34% of American adults
  • Three of the following must be present for diagnosis: high blood sugar, high triglyceride levels, large waist circumference, high blood pressure and low HDL cholesterol
  • It increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

Learn more about metabolic syndrome

In the present research, Earnest - a professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine's Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics - and colleagues compared the effect of palmitate, a saturated fatty acid, with DHA, a common polyunsaturated omega-3.

Pubchem - a resource of the National Institutes of Health - describes palmitic acid as: "A saturated long-chain fatty acid with a 16-carbon backbone."

It occurs naturally in palm oil, palm kernel oil, butter, cheese, milk and meat, and it is one of the most common long chain saturated fats in the Western diet.

While humans can easily travel through different time zones, because their whole body moves together, if some cells are shifted and others not, inflammation can occur.

Think how it would feel, says Earnest, if your wall clock, wristwatch, computer and cell phone all showed different times. How would you know which one was right?

Findings indicate that palmitate "jet lags" body cells, effectively setting some of them to different "time zones," and causing confusion in the body, because different cell types reflect different "clocks."

This disruption, says Earnest, can lead to a number of health disorders, especially metabolic disease.

He explains that the likelihood of chronic inflammation depends on which saturated fats an individual consumes, and when he or she eats them.

Eat high-fat meals in the morning, not at night

He predicts that the best time to eat a high-fat meal is early in the morning, while the worst time is probably late at night.

The authors emphasize that not all fats are bad. In fact, certain polyunsaturated "good" fats and anti-inflammatory drugs can offer protection at times when saturated fats cause the most inflammation and are resetting the body clocks.

The action of DHA, for example, is anti-inflammatory. It disrupts the inflammatory response and prevents the body clocks from being set to the wrong time.

On this basis, says Earnest, omega-3 fatty acids or other anti-inflammatory treatments could be used to prevent the local time changes caused in our body clocks by saturated fats.

He says:

"We may be able to control the inflammatory response locally in specific tissues, maximizing the inflammation with timed palmitate treatment to help the body respond to infection or injury. We could then deliver appropriate treatments at specific times to block the chronic phase and potentially manage inflammation-related diseases."

Medical News Today reported recently on research suggesting an interaction between the body clock and the processing of sugar in cells.