Eating Late: Will It Make Us Gain Weight?

Is it true that when we eat may influence our weight? For years, some nutritionists and diet consultants have told us “…not to eat dinner later than 6 pm,” or “…If you eat late at night you will gain a pound while you sleep,” or “…it is better to eat most of your calories early in the day.”  Now that daylight saving time has arrived, we may find ourselves eating dinner much later than we did a few months ago when it was dark by 5:30, or even much earlier. Indeed, as the hours of daylight extend into the evening, and the weather becomes benign, dinner may be pushed back even further as we are reluctant to go inside and settle down for the evening. If the timing of our meals does make a difference, might this have an impact on our weight? Should we stick to eating dinner no later than 7 pm because if we ignore this time limit, we will be gaining weight?

Compelling evidence supports the idea that the timing of meals may affect weight. A large study examining meal times among Seventh-Day Adventist church members in the United States and Canada suggests that we should consider rearranging our meal schedule. Researchers looked at food records of 50,660 adult Seventh-Day Adventists and their BMI ( body mass index), a measurement of their weight status. Would there be a relationship between the number of meals consumed, the timing of the major and smaller meals, which meals were usually skipped and their weight? Their results might make one reconsider when to eat.

People who ate breakfast had lower BMIs than those who habitually skipped this meal. Moreover, people who made breakfast their major meal of the day, rather than lunch or especially dinner, had a significantly lower weight than those who ate their largest meal at dinner. Eating a bigger lunch than dinner also produced lower body weight, although the differences were not as striking as between those who made breakfast their main meal of the day and those who ate their largest meal at night.  Snacks were counted as meals and, no surprise, people who ate more than three meals a day were in the heaviest category.

Breakfast consumption has also been linked to weight loss in a study in which dieting subjects ate most of their calories at breakfast or at dinner. Both groups ate the same number of calories but those who ate most of their calories at breakfast lost significantly more weight than the other group.

These results suggest that populations that traditionally eat tiny breakfasts and large evening meals might have a high rate of obesity. In two such countries, Spain and Argentina, breakfast is often only coffee and perhaps a roll or pastry, and dinner usually begins, at least in restaurants, no earlier than 10:30 pm. However, despite their late dining and inadequate breakfasts, the prevalence of obesity doesn’t even come to close to what we have in the States where we finish our dinners before they have picked up their forks to begin theirs. The prevalence of obesity in both Spain and Argentina is around 14%.

In contrast, one out of every four Americans is obese. Moreover, articles lamenting the increase in the numbers of overweight and obese individuals in these countries do not mention the lateness of the dinner hour, but instead focus on the same factors that are responsible in part for our rise in obesity: too many high calorie snacks, too little exercise, too much watching television, too little consumption of fruits and vegetables and too much fast food. Sound familiar?

Nevertheless, can we disregard the studies indicating that consuming the majority of our calories before sunset might help us in the obesity battle? Should we stop having people over for dinner or celebratory occasions involving food in the evening, and switch to brunch or breakfast instead? Should lunch be the default main meal and dinner limited to soup and a salad, or yogurt and fruit?

One problem with transferring information from studies with compelling results such as the one with the Seventh-Day Adventists is that life gets in the way of implementation. Early mornings, filled as they are with getting breakfast for the family, walking the dog, long commutes, getting the kids to daycare or school, and the myriad obligations that arise between waking up and being at work seem incompatible with preparing and consuming a large meal. Moreover, lunch, the other opportunity to eat the major meal of the day, is rarely a complete meal. Do people go home for a hot meal at lunchtime anymore? Most of us content ourselves with a salad or sandwich and consider ourselves lucky if we can eat it at a table rather than at our desk or sitting on a curb near a construction site.

Perhaps the real problem is being too hungry at dinner. If breakfast and lunch are skipped or skimpy, late afternoon-early evening hunger hijacks our control over eating while preparing dinner, at the meal itself, and afterward. We may justify our grabbing and gobbling because we have eaten so little earlier in the day. And we munch on cookies or ice cream after dinner because “they couldn’t have any more calories than the breakfast or lunch we skipped.”

It is unlikely that breakfast will become the new dinner, regardless of research on its impact on weight. But we should not minimize the importance of this meal as well as lunch in controlling our hunger late in the day. It really might work.

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