A Fast Buck? What is Chrononutrition and Why Should Food, Tech and Health Brands Care?

For years, mainstream nutrition advice has held that ‘a calorie is just a calorie’ and that it doesn’t matter if that calorie comes from fat, carbohydrate or protein. As long as total calories burnt by the body each day exceeds total calories consumed, broadly all is good. 

I remember phrases drummed into me as a kid such as ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’, ‘there is only a 15 minute window after a workout to get your recovery drink in’ and ‘eat lots of small meals over the day to ensure a fast metabolism’.

For a large and growing number of shoppers, though, that’s all sounding very old school indeed. 

The New Most Popular Diet – Intermittent Fasting

In June, the FHS study in the USA showed that Intermittent Fasting (effectively restricting eating to certain times of day) was now the most popular diet, overtaking Keto and Clean Eating. Advocates talk about the benefits of gut health, cellular cleanup, avoiding energy slumps and yes, weight loss.

This new wave of nutrition is less about what you eat than when you eat. Meal timing is where it’s at for these consumers who stick to eating in clearly defined ‘feeding windows’, fasting the rest of the time. The 16/8 diet suggests fasting for 16 hours and then eating during an 8-hour window. The OMAD (One Meal A Day) protocol stretches this out to a 20 hour fast followed by eating all your calories in a 4-hour window. Newbies aim for 12 or 14 hour fasts and work their way up to longer fasts.

For brands, though, Keto and Clean Eating were fairly straightforward to deal with. These trends lent themselves to single minded NPD around the absence of certain nutrients, e.g. ‘sugar free’ or ‘preservative free’ or simple recipes as in ‘only 4 ingredients’. 

But how do you market a ‘fast’? How do you create a FMCG marketing campaign to sell food to someone who chooses not to eat?

The answer is to get under the skin of Chrononutrition. This is a new field of study – effectively the intersection of circadian (daily) biology and diet. Circadian biology is essentially the rhythms of daily life – so cycles of sleep-wake, hormones, immunity and body temperature. 

The Science of Dieting

Diet in essence involves phases of either muscle growth (anabolic) or muscle breakdown (catabolic). While eating triggers cellular growth and repair, fasting triggers cellular cleanup – a process called autophagy in which weak and non-productive cells are broken down and recycled by the body. Both are natural and beneficial processes to be used, depending on the objective.

As a way of understanding this, as a driver you wouldn’t say that either a car brake was ‘better’ than an accelerator. Both are used at different times to guide the car where you want it to go. So it is with feeding and fasting. To put on lean muscle and repair you need to eat to trigger anabolism and fasting triggers fat oxidation and cellular clean-up through catabolism.

Brand Opportunity & Cautiousness

This provides opportunities as well as threats for brands – for example, think about consumer needs during the fasting window. There are a variety of products that can be used to help with motivation, satiety and generally ‘staying on track’.  These include things as basic as black coffee (oxidises fat), bullion and bone broth, sleep promoting foods and teas, pre-made mixes such as essential and amino acid blends (promotes feelings of satiety), all the way through to newer more cutting edge products such as exogenous Ketones (BMB) and MCT oil (coconut oil).

Right after the fast is broken, depending on the length of it, some companies are creating food and drink products that help the adjustment back into eating. Protein rich foods and shakes are an easy way to fire up digestion. Also, right before starting the fast, the emphasis is on eating higher fibre and protein so specific products can help here too.

The Technology Streamlining Fasting & Dieting Insights  

A new world of fasting apps on phones and wearables has emerged to provide consumer insights into the metabolic processes in their bodies and help them exert greater control over their biology. There is a growing market for premium nutritional advice and content on digital devices. 

Wearables are booming in this space. Continuous glucose meters, which constantly measure blood sugar, are on the cusp of mainstream with Apple reportedly having consumer products in the works. These, linked through a hair thin needle to your bloodstream, allow you to see in real time the impact of your food choices on your blood sugar level. A new class of ‘breath monitors’ are poised to grow rapidly, analysing your exhales for clues about your fasted and fed states.

This is a brave new world where food, technology and ideas are coming together. It is one that challenges some of the base assumptions of food and drink companies. Those companies who genuinely get under the skin of what these consumers are looking for, to support their fasting lifestyles and design products, technologies and applications to help, will reap rewards. It’ll be fascinating to see how all this plays out.

Contact us if you wish to discuss the latest in chrononutrition and, whether you are a provider or consumer.

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