Fat cells store excess energy and signal these levels to the brain. In a new study this week in Nature Medicine, Georgios Paschos PhD, a research associate in the lab of Garret FitzGerald, MD, FRS director of the Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, shows that deletion of the clock gene Arntl, also known as Bmal1, in fat cells, causes mice to become obese, with a shift in the timing of when this nocturnal species normally eats. These findings shed light on the complex causes of obesity in humans.
The Penn studies are surprising in two respects. “The first is that a relatively modest shift in food consumption into what is normally the rest period for mice can favor energy storage,” says Paschos. “Our mice became obese without consuming more calories.” Indeed, the Penn researchers could also cause obesity in normal mice by replicating the altered pattern of food consumption observed in mice with a broken clock in their fat cells.
This behavioral change in the mice is somewhat akin to night-eating syndrome in humans, also associated with obesity and originally described by Penn’s Albert Stunkard in 1955.
The second surprising observation relates to the molecular clock itself. Traditionally, clocks in peripheral tissues are thought to follow the lead of the “master clock” in the SCN of the brain, a bit like members of an orchestra following a conductor. “While we have long known that peripheral clocks have some capacity for autonomy – the percussionist can bang the drum without instructions from the conductor – here we see that the orchestrated behavior of the percussionist can, itself, influence the conductor,” explains FitzGerald.
tl;dr: There’s some validity to “cut off” times - some people don’t eat after 8 p.m., or whenever. While a calorie at night is the same as a calorie during the day, eating when you’re supposed to be resting and the way your body processes calories at night may favor fat storage and actually change the rhythm of your internal clock. That, in addition to issues that often accompany night time eating and lead to overeating (disrupted sleep schedule, emotional problems, etc) contributes to weight gain. So it’s not calories themselves, but the circumstances around night time eating it that leads to it’s bad rep.