“Eat once a day.” “Eat six times a day.” “Never eat,” “always eat,” “eat like our ancestors did,” or “eat like your favorite influencer does.” 

Meal timing advice these days is anything but consistent. Here at IgY Nutrition, we recognize that everyone is different. Meal timing that works for me, your sister, your cousin, or your favorite influencer could differ from what works for you.

So what knowledge should you bring to the table when choosing how often to eat? Let’s dive in. 

The Maid You Didn’t Know You Employ

Before we jump into meal timing, let’s introduce you to your digestive system’s housekeeper: the migrating motor complex. 

The migrating motor complex is a system your body uses to cleanse and clear out your gut (1). Its purpose is to push things (food, waste, water, etc.) through your digestive tract (and out the other end!). 

Food, water, and other items aren’t supposed to sit in one part of your digestive system for too long. 

After being chewed for 20-30 seconds, food should move to the stomach. The stomach then does its job for an hour or so. Then the food should move to the small intestine, and so forth (1). 

Peristalsis, the contraction of intestinal muscles, stimulates this movement of food down the digestive tract (2). The migrating motor complex regulates the pace of peristalsis, keeping your motility on schedule (1). 

People with irregular motility (diarrhea or constipation) may have dysregulated peristalsis. If peristalsis is on overdrive, you’ll go to the bathroom far too often. And if peristalsis is inhibited, you’ll experience constipation (3).

But there’s more to the migrating motor complex than keeping peristalsis on track. When it operates correctly, it prevents infections and discourages bacterial overgrowth(1, 3). 

Think of the migrating motor complex like a housekeeper. If the housekeeper doesn’t show up or does an incomplete job, bacteria and pathogens have an easier time populating the gut. 

So, that being said, ensuring that your migrating motor complex does its job thoroughly is key to a healthy microbiome. 

You might ask – how do we ensure the migrating motor complex can do its job? Let’s take a look. 

Stimulating the Migrating Motor Complex

First off, you might ask, when does the migrating motor complex operate? When does the housekeeper come to work?

The migrating motor complex is active when you’re not eating. Your body likes to focus on the food it’s actively breaking down – it can “do the dishes” later (4).

Once the food is broken down, approximately an hour to two hours after you’ve finished your meal, the migrating motor complex is activated and can begin cleaning up (4).

The migrating motor complex works in cycles of about an hour to two hours. It keeps cycling until you eat again (4). Some scientists argue that it takes longer to do its job thoroughly, ranging from 90 minutes to 3 ½ hours.

When to Eat Based on the Migrating Motor Complex

As we touched on above, making time for the migrating motor complex to do its job (at least one cycle) between meals is of the utmost importance.

Let’s look at an example.

Assume you eat breakfast at 8 AM and finish up by 8:15. About an hour later, your migrating motor complex will get going. Now we’re at 9:15. It needs 90 minutes to 3 ½ hours to finish, which puts you at 10:45 AM to 12:45 PM before you should eat again.

That’s 2 ½ to 4 ½ hours between meals. Here at IgY Nutrition, we recommend 3 to 4 hours and no eating at night as a happy medium.

Whether you want to intermittent fast or eat all day and night long, space your meals out by three to four hours to let your migrating motor complex finish its job. 

Thanks for joining us today! Tag us in photos of your digestive wellness journey on Instagram @igynutrition. 

References

  1. Deloose E, Janssen P, Depoortere I, Tack J. The migrating motor complex: control mechanisms and its role in health and disease. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2012 Mar 27;9(5):271-85. doi: 10.1038/nrgastro.2012.57. PMID: 22450306. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22450306/
  2. Patel KS, Thavamani A. Physiology, Peristalsis. [Updated 2022 Jan 21]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556137/ 
  3. Visan, I. Regulating gut peristalsis. Nat Immunol 15, 832 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/ni.2977 
  4. “Migrating Motor Complex.” Migrating Motor Complex – an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics, https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/migrating-motor-complex#:~:text=Interdigestive%20App,3%20h%20after%20a%20meal.