WHAT THEY’RE SAYING Eating most of your calories in the evening will make you gain weight because you don’t have time to burn them off before going to bed.
WHAT WE KNOW
No matter when you eat them, you gain weight when you eat more calories than you burn off. As long as the number of calories you eat in a day is not more than the calories you burn, eating late won’t cause you to gain weight. Foods have the same calories at 10 p.m. as they do at 6 p.m.
So why does eating late have such a bad image? One problem is that nighttime eating tends to be snacking rather than sitting down for a regular meal, and lots of snack foods are low on nutrition but high in calories.
Snack foods also make for mindless eating. It’s easy to sit down in front of the TV with a large bag of chips planning to enjoy "just a few," and the next thing you know you’re scraping up crumbs from the bottom of the bag. Mindless munching in front of the TV at night can push calorie intake over the top.
HOW DO WE KNOW THIS?
Let’s say that you can eat 1,800 calories a day and your weight remains the same. If you consumed extra calories at any time throughout the day, you will gain weight from those extra calories taken in above 1,800, not from the time of day that you consumed them.
The reason that people say that we gain weight from eating at night is because most people consume more calories when they are eating later in the day. Many studies have shown that people report that the hardest time of day for controlling their food intake is between dinner and bedtime. So, the reason you would gain from eating at this time is because you ate too many calories, not because your body doesn’t process them in the same way.
Research has shown that the way food calorie intake is distributed may affect hunger— and that, in turn, could affect weight gain. A 1999 study in the journal Appetite found that when lean, healthy men spread their meals evenly throughout the day, as opposed to eating larger meals more infrequently, they were less hungry. Other studies have shown that people who skip breakfast, or who delay eating earlier in the day, are more likely to binge later.
Skipping meals, or going for long periods without eating creates a state where the body is low on fuel. This may cause your metabolism to slow down to preserve energy. This may make the body more sensitive to the calories that come later and more likely to store those calories as fat and not use them. Skipping meals also often leads to eating larger meals to make up for the energy deficit.
You have a set number of calories that your body needs to maintain your current weight. If you stay within your calorie requirements, your weight will remain the same. When you take in more calories than your body needs, you gain weight. This will happen regardless of when you consume those calories.
Skipping meals is probably more of a problem than night eating. People who skip breakfast often shift their caloric intake to later in the day, eating the majority of their daily calories at night. If you are eating healthful, regular sized meals and snacks during the day, a late meal probably won’t be a problem as long as you keep the meal size sensible. However, if you feel stuffed at bedtime, you may have gone too long without eating, and then over eaten.
Tip #1 Deter the Urge. There’s nothing wrong with sitting down to a family dinner a bit on the late side but eating breakfast, lunch, and a small healthy snack between meals during the day will most likely deter the urge to eat an overly-large dinner and/or a high-calorie snack in the evening. Nuts, fruits, and vegetables are great healthy snacks that will help you feel less hungry.
Tip # 2 After-Dinner Snacks. If you get hungry after dinner, reach for something healthy, like fruits or veggies; that way there’s less of a chance the foods you eat will put you over your daily calorie limit.
Tip #3 Make A Plan. If you find you’re still eating a lot in the evening, it may be beneficial to select a time to stop eating and plan what you’ll eat. Take a look at what time you usually have dinner and decide how much food is reasonable to have between then and bedtime. The more you plan ahead the easier it’ll be to control your calorie intake.