How Late Is Too Late To Eat?

woman kneeling in front of refridgerator at night
Checking a clock may be as helpful as counting calories when it comes to controlling body weight.

According to experts, people who snack after 8 p.m. have higher body mass indexes (BMIs) than people who don’t snack so late, even though they don’t eat significantly more or less total daily calories.

Previous studies in animals have found that even when calories are held steady, the timing of meals and sleep and exposure to light can impact metabolism and BMI. Experts also are quick to point out that night owls tended to be late sleepers, with a midpoint of sleep that was after 5:30 a.m. Late sleepers typically logged less sleep than normal sleepers. They also started their days later, a pattern that pushed back mealtimes throughout the day.

Additionally, they had higher BMIs than normal sleepers, ate more calories after 8 p.m., and ate fewer fruits and vegetables.

“The one major thing that remains positive, that remains correlated, is eating after 8 p.m.,” says Phyllis Zee, MD, associate director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology and a professor at Northwestern University’s Institute for Neuroscience in Chicago.

Night Eating: It’s Not Just Your Waistline That’s In Danger

Night eaters had almost four more missing teeth than non-night eaters even when controlling for factors like age, education, diabetes, body mass and binge eating. And gender made no difference.

“We hypothesize that consuming foods in the middle of the night, not brushing or flossing one’s teeth after nocturnal ingestions, and reduced salivary flow during the night increase the risk of tooth loss in this sample,” said Jennifer Lundgren, a psychologist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Practical Advice for Dieters

Eating late affects the body in a different way than eating a larger meal at mid-day. If we consume most of our calories at night, our bodies are not able to process the food as efficiently as we do during the day.

Furthermore, unless you work the night shift, most of us are tired after a hard day of work. After dinner, we want to rest and settle in for the night. This is a good idea! It prepares our bodies for sleep and relaxation. Unfortunately, if we lie down with a huge belly full of food, we are putting a strain on our system.

This usually leads to a feeling of lethargy in the morning. We also experience disrupted sleep if the body is working so hard to digest what we ate the night before.

Red meat is an especially toxic food to consume late at night. Meat takes longer than any other food item to digest. We should particularly avoid the intake of meat late at night, as it tends to stay in our digestive track longer than grains, fruits or vegetables.

“Many of our patients struggle with night eating,” says Elisabetta Politi, RD, nutrition director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C.

Still, there are many unanswered questions about why late eating may lead to weight gain. For example, in some European countries, for example, it is customary to eat dinner at later hours, which doesn’t seem to contribute to higher rates of obesity in those countries. But ultimately, experts agree that for people trying to lose weight, it probably wouldn’t hurt to curb nighttime eating.

“It makes perfect sense to eat more when you are more physically active. You burn off the calories you eat,” Politi says, “But at the same time, we don’t want people to feel that if they eat something healthy at 10 p.m., it is going to lead to weight gain.”

Tips To Avoid Late Night Eating

  • Eat a moderate breakfast and a heavier lunch.
  • Try eating a light dinner that still fulfills a healthy emotional “nourishing” component. A good dinner food is soup. It is warming, filling, and easy on our digestive tract. Particularly in the winter and fall, it is the perfect later meal.
  • If you aren’t a fan of larger lunches, go for a larger dinner before 6 PM.
  • When you feel like eating late at night, drink a cup of warm lemon water or an herbal tea with raw honey. Hot liquids are soothing, warming and nourish the emotions.
  • Remember that if you have habitually eaten late over a long period of time, you will have to retrain your body not to crave that habit. Start slowly by reducing your portion sizes and choosing healthier meals.
  • Stop eating foods that cause high energy peaks, followed by large energy plummets. Trade in junk food, white sugar, processes foods and white flour for whole grains, warming soups, fruits and vegetables.
  • Brush your teeth earlier! It may sound too simple, but some people find that if they just brush their teeth, they are less likely to indulge in late-night eating patterns.
  • Turn off the tube. Studies have shown that the television can subconsciously trigger our desires for more food, too late.
  • Take a warm bath before bed. Turn on some soothing music. Read a light book. Enjoy some new night-time rituals that don’t involve heavy eating.
  • Go on a brisk walk after dinner. Ayurvedic medicine says that we should eat no later than six o’ clock, and afterwards take a walk of at least 108 steps!