For heart health, it's not just what you eat, but when

Last Updated Jan 31, 2017 11:13 AM EST

It’s common knowledge that what we eat plays an important role in health, but a new report finds that when we eat is also significant.

A new statement from the American Heart Association suggests that eating more of your calories earlier in the day may help keep the heart healthy.

“People who consume breakfast on a regular basis have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Marie-Pierre St-Onge, the author of the statement and a researcher at Columbia University Medical Center, told CBS News.

St-Onge points to studies that show eating earlier in the day – when your body can better metabolize food – may lower heart disease risk factors such as obesityhigh blood pressure and high cholesterol.

“A calorie in the morning may not be the same as a calorie, in terms of how your body processes it, in the evening,” CBS News medical contributor Dr. Tara Narula said on “CBS This Morning” Tuesday. 

“We’re learning that it’s because of the body’s internal clocks,” explained Narula, who is a cardiologist at Northwell Health. “We have a central clock in our brain that’s really dictated by light and dark, and that controls our sleep-wake cycles, our body temperature. But what’s more fascinating is that each of our individual tissues and organs have their own clocks, and those are turned on or off by feeding or fasting. And those genes essentially control how we process blood sugar, cholesterol, how our immune system functions, our digestive system.”

Like many Americans, Elena Alonzo used to constantly skip breakfast. Now, she makes sure to make time for it every day.

“I always thought I was not hungry and now I realize how much energy this actually gives me,” she said, making time for a breakfast of oatmeal, fruit and a smoothie at her desk.

Spreading out your day’s calories across smaller, more frequent meals also seems to benefit the heart.

“Consume a balanced diet, obviously, but if this can be done in the context of more frequent meals during the waking hours – not so close to bedtime, and earlier in the day – that would be the ideal,” St-Onge said.

She also recommends planning your meals, and avoiding eating due to stress, boredom, or fatigue.

For Alonzo, sticking to a breakfast routine is also important.

“If we don’t ritualize something it’s really easy for it to fall away,” she said.