It is a myth that eating late at night automatically packs calories onto the hips and belly. Granted, two recent studies found problems with late-night eating. Researchers at the University of Barcelona found that binge eating was more prevalent when people were alone at home, especially in the late evening, while a study from Josai University in Japan found that late-night eating resulted in a greater risk for high blood sugar. However, it’s not so much when, but what the people chose to eat.
The only time you gain weight with late-night eating is if you eat too much. The myth that dinner calories go straight to your hips probably originated from a decade-old study on men that found the body burned a few extra calories digesting food (called “diet-induced thermogenesis” or DIT) after breakfast and lunch, than after dinner. This study led to the assumption that the body resisted weight gain through mid-day, but packed on pounds at the evening meal because a lower DIT meant more calories were available for storage. No research since has added credence to the theory. Even if there was a slight fat-storing effect at dinner, it’s too small to make any difference in a person’s weight. In truth, people let their guard down at night and are more prone to overeating, especially comfort foods like ice cream and chips. It is the extra calories, not the time of day, that leads to weight gain.
That said, late-night noshing can be a sign of a general out-of-whack eating schedule that can lead to the Night Eating Syndrome, where you eat the bulk of your calories later in the day, wake up not hungry so skip breakfast, then pig out that night. The problem here is not only overeating at night, but skipping the most important meal of the day – breakfast. Breakfast – especially if it’s whole grain cereal, low-fat milk, and colorful fruit – is one of the most nutritious meals of the day, so it makes sense that breakfast eaters consume fewer total calories and have an easier time managing their weights than people who overate the night before then skipped breakfast.
No need to give up a small, nutritious snack at night. Just be watchful that you’re not overeating when you finally do sit down to a meal. Or, rethink your eating schedule. There’s no reason to save the biggest meal of the day until evening, when you are more apt to overeat. If you are tempted to overeat at night, try having dinner at lunchtime, then have a small meal or snack in the evening. And, I’m not talking energy bars and a cola! Dinner still should include a 100% whole grain, two or more colorful fruits or vegetables, and a lean protein. A bedtime snack can be all-carb, to boost serotonin levels, just keep the serving small. It only takes 30 grams of carbs to increase levels of this sleep-enhancing neurotransmitter. Two cups of air-popped popcorn will do the trick, not the whole bag.
Pla-Sanjuanelo J, Ferrer-Garcia M, Gutierrez-Maldonado J, et al: Identifying specific cues and contexts related to binging behavior for the development of effective virtual environments. Appetite 2015;87:81-89.
Nakajima K, Suwa K: Association of hyperglycemia in a general Japanese population with late-night-dinner eating alone, but not breakfast skipping alone. Journal of Diabetes and Metabolic Disorders 2015;March 25th.