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Nighttime eating leads to weight gain

May 26, 2017 (Updated: August 3, 2021)
Lily Moran

Healthy meal timing has long been a sore spot among nutritional researchers. For every researcher who found impressive evidence that meal timing had a significant role to play in health and weight gain, another would come along with studies that suggested a calorie is a calorie, no matter when you have it. It’s no one’s fault, really—it’s very hard to get accurate reporting on people’s eating habits. Meal diaries are, at best, incomplete snapshots of food timing and intake, and, at worst, a story about what participants wish they had eaten. However, there’s good news. More attention is being paid to this area, and better studies are coming out daily. And those studies may differ on the details, but they point to one simple conclusion: Eating too much later in the day is bad for you. Here’s why.

The Starving Beast

It’s helpful to start out with a couple things.

First—the number of Americans who eat a full breakfast is constantly going down. At approximately the same rate that obesity is going up, coincidentally.

Second—the longer you go without food, the larger your next meal tends to be. This is especially true in the evening. For instance, skipping breakfast leads to a larger lunch, but skipping lunch leads to a much larger dinner, no matter what happened at breakfast.

Third—you have more calories left to burn earlier in the day than later. In other words, anything you eat in the morning will most likely be fuel throughout the day. Anything you eat last thing at night is less likely to be used efficiently—and is more likely to sit around in your digestive tract longer, leaving you feeling full in the morning.

Fourth—Americans eat larger meals throughout the day. So, in reverse of conventional wisdom, we have the smallest meal at breakfast, then lunch, and finally have a massive dinner. This doesn’t just apply to meals, either. Early evening and late night snacks tend to be larger than snacks earlier in the day.

Fifth—those who are obese tend to take in the majority of their excess calories in the evening. So, on average, obese individuals will have a breakfast that looks like everyone else’s, and a lunch that’s nearly the same. But dinner and late-night snacks, by contrast, will be huge.

When you put all the puzzle pieces together, a theme starts to emerge. Namely—for whatever reason—we’re eating too much in the evening and at night. And that, as much as anything else, is making us fatter.

Perhaps it’s a side effect of an overworked lifestyle—one in which there’s no time during the day for sit down meals, so everyone arrives to the dinner table famished and ready to gorge.

Maybe it’s because we tend to eat during sedentary activities at night—like watching TV, or sitting at a sporting event or show.

Perhaps it’s because eating is an entertainment or diversion at night—out at restaurants or bars with friends. Maybe it’s simply the addition of alcohol to many meals—which occurs much less during daytime hours.

But here’s the big takeaway: You are probably eating too much at night.

And that can have profound side effects. Yes, large nighttime meals go hand in hand with obesity. But there are plenty of other direct results, as well.

For instance, amongst men who wake up to have late night snacks, there’s a 55% greater chance of developing heart disease.

For all mammals, many of our metabolic clocks are set not by the sun, but by food intake. Consequently, eating on a 24 hour cycle isn’t good for you. Indeed, mice that were fed at odd intervals throughout the day—as opposed to eating in a 9-12 hour window, and allowed metabolism to reset overnight—had many more metabolic problems, overall disease, and gained more weight.

Heck, one study found that eating ice cream could get you to lose weight! The trick was just to take 300 calories from the nighttime eating window, and put it at breakfast time. Study participants weren’t cutting calories, just moving them.

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Those calories entirely consisted of chocolate and ice cream. And participants lost an average of 45 pounds over 36 weeks.

How To Eat Healthy All The Time

There’s a lot more we have to learn. This is still a fledgling field of study, and it’s one that will develop a lot over the coming years.

To give one example that’s in the news today, intermittent fasting diets are all the rage right now. And, while some appear to have benefits, they are still anecdotal, and we don’t know exactly how they work yet.

But, for all that, I feel confident saying this: Eating too much at night is a great way to add unnecessary weight, and increase your risk of all sorts of diseases, especially those of the heart.

So, try this instead.

Eat Breakfast. Amongst those who eat a regular breakfast, there’s 31% less obesity. While I’d love for you to have a healthy breakfast of eggs and grapefruit, for now, it’s important just to kick off your metabolism before you start your day.

Don’t Skip Meals It can be tempting to try to make up for overeating elsewhere, by skimping at another time.

But these sorts of plans usually backfire over time. You eat more the rest of the day to make up for missed calories. And your body is more likely to take those late calories and store them away, in case you’re going to miss more meals in the future. Don’t let your body go into starvation mode, and don’t send it on the blood-sugar roller coaster. Eat regularly throughout the day.

That can be three large meals, or five small ones. The important thing is not to just have one or two huge meals. That’s what Sumo wrestlers do to put on weight.

Don’t Eat And Be Sedentary Try to be do something active just after eating, to help prime your digestion and metabolism. This can be as simple as a ten-minute walk around the block—even strolling around the mall. Don’t just sit in front of the TV mindlessly putting more food in your mouth. Which leads to…

Eat Mindfully When you are eating, eat. When you are doing something else, do that. Don’t combine the two. Eating as an addition to an activity, or diversion, almost always leads to overeating. How many times have you discovered during a movie that you ate an entire bag of potato chips, and you have almost no recollection of any of it? That’s what mindless eating leads to.

Stop Before Bed Specifically, don’t eat anything less than two hours before you go to sleep. If you can, having an even larger gap is better. Personally, I never have anything less than three hours before bed, and I aim for four.

This stops you from eating during the sedentary last part of the day, and it allows your digestive system to better process food before bed. That, in addition, gives your metabolism the chance to reset overnight, resulting in you waking up hungry for breakfast, and burning calories more efficiently.

If you want to think of this as a diet, that’s fine. But it really isn’t—you don’t have to change what you eat at all to see the effects of this plan. Just change when you eat, and you’ll start to see a difference in how your clothes fit, how much energy you have through the day, and how you relate to food.

And all you did was change time, not substance. It doesn’t get much easier than that.


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