Many people worry about gaining weight when they eat after a certain time.
A common suggestion is not to eat after 8pm, but the advice about eating at night is misleading.
In reality, what you eat is much more important than when you eat.
This article separates fact from fiction when it comes to late night eating and weight gain.
Eating and your circadian rhythm
The idea that eating at night causes you to gain weight comes from animal studies, suggesting that the body may use calories consumed differently after a certain time of day.
Some researchers hypothesize that eating at night goes against your circadian rhythm, which is the 24-hour cycle that tells your body when to sleep, eat, and wake up.
According to your circadian rhythm , the night is for resting, not eating.
In fact, several animal studies support this theory. Mice that eat in opposition to their circadian rhythm gain significantly more weight than mice that only eat during waking hours, even if they eat the same amount of food.
However, not all human studies support this idea.
In fact, human studies indicate that it is not necessarily how long you eat, but what you eat that matters.
For example, a study of more than 1,600 children found no link between eating dinner after 8 p.m. and being overweight. In this study, late eaters did not appear to consume more total calories.
However, when the researchers tracked the eating habits of 52 adults, they found that those who ate more than 8 p.m. consumed more total calories than previous eaters.
The extra calories consumed by late eaters can lead to weight gain over time.
In general, when your total calorie intake falls within your daily needs, weight gain does not appear to occur simply as a result of eating at night.
Although several animal studies have linked eating at night to weight gain, human studies show that eating beyond your daily caloric needs leads to weight gain, unrelated to the time of day you eat.
Night eaters tend to eat more
One explanation for the association between eating at night and weight gain is the tendency for late eaters to eat more calories overall.
Regardless of timing, eating more calories than you need will lead to weight gain.
For example, the researchers analyzed the relationship between meal times and total calorie intake for 59 people.
In particular, people who ate closer to bedtime consumed more calories overall than those who ate their last meal earlier.
Another study found that people who ate between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. consumed approximately 500 more calories per day than those who limited their intake to daylight hours.
Over time, the average nightly consumer gained an additional 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms).
Therefore, eating at night can lead to weight gain only if you eat excess calories.
Night eaters tend to eat more and therefore consume additional calories. Over time, excess calories can lead to weight gain.
Eating late at night can affect food choices
Not only do night eaters tend to eat more food, they also tend to choose foods of lower nutritional quality .
In the evening, you are more likely to choose unhealthy, high-calorie foods. These are foods with little nutritional value, such as potato chips, soda, and ice cream.
There are many possible reasons for this. For one thing, late-night eaters may not have easy access to healthy foods.
People who work night shifts are a good example of this.
Many studies suggest that night workers tend to snack on unhealthy foods for convenience, as there may be a lack of healthy options available in the workplace during the night.
Emotional eating is another factor that leads to nutritionally poorer food choices at night. It is important to discern between true hunger and eating due to stress, anxiety, boredom, or sadness.
Additionally, tiredness has been linked to increased food intake and a desire for high-calorie foods. This may be due to hormonal changes that influence appetite during sleep deprivation.
Again, when it comes to gaining weight, what you eat is more important than when you eat. If you eat within your daily caloric needs, you will not gain weight simply by eating at night.
If you’re really hungry after dinner, consider choosing nutrient-dense foods and drinks. These are low calorie foods with high nutritional value.
Some great options include:
- Carrot and celery sticks with hummus.
- Apple slices with a small portion of your favorite nut butter.
- Simple popcorn.
- A handful of frozen grapes.
Poor food choices are more likely late at night when fewer healthy options are available. Eating emotionally or eating when you are tired can also lead to poor food choices.
Choose nutrient-dense foods if you’re really hungry after dinner.
Time and frequency of meals
Although the total amount of calories you eat is what ultimately affects your weight, research shows that there may be ways to regulate your appetite through the timing and frequency of meals.
For example, several studies indicate that eating a higher calorie breakfast can keep you fuller longer and possibly prevent overeating at night.
In one study, people who ate a 600-calorie breakfast had less appetite and significantly fewer cravings during the day than those who ate 300 calories for breakfast. Cravings for sweets were especially reduced.
Note that breakfast may not be necessary if you eat in the evening, at least not at the traditional time. Follow your hunger cues and you may find yourself eating your first meal later than usual.
You may also want to consider eating smaller meals more often. Some studies, but not all, suggest that this can help you control your appetite and decrease feelings of hunger throughout the day.
Therefore, changing the timing and frequency of meals can be a strategy to reduce total calorie intake by controlling hunger.
Appetite and cravings can be controlled by eating more calories earlier in the day and eating small, frequent meals. These strategies can prevent overeating at night.
The bottom line
Physiologically, calories don’t count for more at night.
You won’t gain weight simply by eating later if you eat within your daily caloric needs.
Still, studies show that late-night eaters tend to choose fewer nutritious foods and consume more calories, which can lead to weight gain.
If you’re hungry after dinner, choose nutrient-dense foods and low-calorie drinks.
You may also consider eating a high calorie breakfast or small frequent meals throughout the day to control your appetite and avoid nighttime cravings.