For dieters watching what they eat and still struggling with weight loss, new scientific research may ease some anxiety. According to a study from June 2020, it’s not just what you eat that impacts your weight. We also want to consider when we eat. Eating a late dinner can cause weight gain, even if one regularly eats healthy meals. (1)
Eating late and weight gain have always been closely linked. But recent studies show the link may not always be negative. There are a lot of variables in determining whether eating late will cause weight gain. Factors to consider include size of meal, activity rate during the day, and eating habits upon waking up. (2)
How does eating late contribute to weight gain? Are there exceptions to the rule of eating late? And how does eating late contribute to one’s overall health and wellbeing?
How Eating Late Can Cause Weight Gain
On a metabolic level, eating late can cause a spike in glucose levels when the body is going into rest mode. This may lead to glucose intolerance, which is observed in those with diabetes and obesity-related diseases. (1)
But it’s more than just what eating late does inside the body that affects our weight loss goals. Eating late can cause weight gain because of the unhealthy habits associated with it. While not everyone behaves the same around food, some trends can be easy to spot with eating habits. And two particular trends with late night eating are: increased calorie consumption and decreased mindfulness. Researchers and nutritionists often associate eating late with eating in front of a television screen, computer, or smartphone. Snacking while we focus on other tasks contributes to consuming more calories; we’re not paying attention to what we’re eating. (3)
When Eating Late Doesn’t Cause Weight Gain
While eating late can contribute to weight gain, it doesn’t guarantee weight fluctuations will occur. There are many nutritionists who argue that there is nothing wrong with late-night snacking. Contrary to popular belief, our metabolism does not slow down overnight. We actually burn about the same amount of calories sleeping as we do throughout the day during inactive, resting periods. Many people misinterpret the tendency to gain weight with eating late and assume it’s due to lower metabolism. This is not the case. (4)
In fact, there are many people who attribute their success in losing weight to eating late at night. In one study with young athletes, consuming a protein shake helped morning satiety and metabolism. The night snack also improved muscle growth. In another study, researchers found eating late improved morning appetite in women, allowing them to eat more mindfully throughout the day. In these instances, it’s not the time that contributes to weight gain, but amount and type of food. (2)
Effects of a Late Dinner on Overall Health
There is one more aspect to consider with late-night eating. That is our overall health and well-being. Many experts consider sleep to be the foundation upon which other fundamentals stand. If our sleep diminishes, so do many other healthy habits. So, if any of our daily habits affect our sleep negatively, they also impact our health. (5)
The link between eating and sleeping is well-researched and documented. Overeating can cause sleep disruptions, which in turn can lower energy and result in poor decision-making. This creates a vicious cycle of poor eating habits, including eating a large meal late at night, which once again affects our quality of sleep. (5)
Making the Right Choice for Yourself Regarding Late Dinners
While most research indicates we should use extreme caution in our late-night eating habits, it’s important to recognize that not everybody reacts the same in every situation. What works for one person may or may not be the best option for another. But if you are someone who struggles with weight loss, your answer may lie in experimenting with different times to eat.
- Tribole, E. and Resch, E. Intuitive Eating. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2012.
- Walker, M. Why We Sleep. Scribner, New York, 2018.