Registered Dietitian Sets The Clock on Eating Habits

Late Night Eating Doesn’t Cause Weight Gain

aprilfools4.april29The other day, this cartoon was posted and liked and reposted all over the net. And as much as registered nutritionists agree that a healthy breakfast is critical to kick start your day and get your metabolism geared up, it reinforces this idea we have that late night eating causes weight gain.

I’ve heard clients swear off food after 7:00 pm, certain that their bodies would absorb it differently and put on the pounds overnight as if food transformed and became extra-caloric with sundown.

According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Weight Control Website “it does not matter what time of day you eat. It is what and how much you eat and how much physical activity you do during the whole day that determines whether you gain, lose, or maintain your weight.” In simple terms, what really causes weight gain is eating more calories than the amount that we expend in a day. Our bodies work on a 24 hour schedule. So if we eat three boxes of donuts in the morning and a salad at night, we’re not going to avoid putting on weight. Read more on this myth at WebMD.

We’ve been misled to believe that late night eating = weight gain. But consider cultures where people eat late. In Spain, dinner is normally served around 9:00 or 10:00 pm. These dinners usually have cheeses, olive oil, breads, cured meats, fish … banquets of rich foods. There isn’t an obesity epidemic in Spain.

So what about the added pounds?

Bottom line: Bad eating and lifestyle habits cause weight gain (or loss, in some cases). Imagine this scenario: You drink down a cup of coffee while getting your kids ready and out the door. You get to the subway just on time to get to work and once you walk in the doors of the office, you’re swamped. You don’t stop all morning, except, perhaps for more coffee. You skip breakfast (no, coffee doesn’t count), and, perhaps, even lunch.

By the time you get home, your hand is in the peanut jar. You’re eating crackers, cookies, and highcalorie snacks because your body is starving. You prepare dinner and sit to eat, not paying attention to how much you eat, because you’re too busy trying to fix Saturn’s rings for the science fair while watching a How-to video on solving polynomials. Kids are in bed, and you crash in front of the TV or back at your computer, nibbling on popcorn or homemade trail mix, cookies or crackers – all of which are high calorie snacks. In this scenario, you’ve consumed almost 90% of your calories after 5:00 pm. And because you are so over-hungry, you overeat.

Nighttime is relax time. Relax time often translates to TV time. TV dinners, snacks and eating in front of the TV is proven to be a high calorie activity. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that “sedentary activities, such as watching television, may disrupt habituation to food cues.” In other words, when we’re watching TV or looking at the computer and not paying attention to eating, we don’t pay attention to our bodies and, often, overeat.

Late night eating, then, might be a cause of weight gain, but not because of the time of day the food is consumed. It’s more about the circumstances and habits, as late-night eating usually happens when we’re watching TV, are out at parties (consuming high calorie finger foods and alcohol), binge after starving our bodies during the day, are bored, or any number of reasons – none of which have to do with the actual time of day.

So the best way to maintain your weight and, in turn, be healthy, is by eating regular meals every three to four hours with healthy snacks in between. By doing this, you can regulate your blood sugar and control cravings and hunger which, often, are a cause for overeating. And when you sit to eat, sit to eat. Turn off the TV, put away the newspaper, and pay attention to the flavors. Give your body the time it needs to eat.

Want to know more? Check out these great sources:

Nutrition.gov • The Food and Nutrition Information Center (FNIC)