When I was a teenager, I picked up the “don’t eat at night” advice and ran with it. I can’t remember where I heard it, but it stuck with me for a while.
Keep in mind that back then I was into pretty much every conventional idea of what nutrition and fitness was. I cut calories, ate whole grain bread, and ran 4 to 5 miles a day. It worked, probably because I was 16. But I do remember being hungry as hell all of the time and falling asleep in half my classes at school.
So the “don’t eat at night” advice is summed up like this: “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch a queen, and dinner like a pauper.”
Advice like this makes so much sense on the surface: If I eat calories at night, my body has nothing to do with them so it stores them as fat. And people add to that by saying that your metabolism shuts down when you sleep and that carbs become extra fattening after 6pm. And if you don’t believe them, just ask your doctor…
From a nutrient perspective food is fuel, so when we eat we need to consider when to eat release fuel into our systems. When we eat shortly before we go to sleep we are creating a situation where all the fuel and nutrients in food get released when we no longer need energy and food. ~ Dr. Daemon Jones
If you didn’t catch it, “fuel” equals “calories.” Pretty typical — especially considering a medical doctor wrote it.
When I’m researching a belief, I always research the perspective of people who disagree as well. But even the resources online that don’t agree with this advice are confused as to why we shouldn’t agree with it:
Calories eaten late at night or after 6:00 p.m. do not automatically turn into fat. Your body uses calories the same way regardless of the time of day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The total number of calories you eat throughout the day determines whether or not you will gain weight, rather than the time of day at which you consume those calories [Livestrong]
Well, they gave it a good college try.
The truth is that there’s some right and wrong to all of this (of course, right?).
First, the wrong.
If you eat at night, the fact that you’re going to sleep doesn’t mean the body has nothing useful to do with that food. That’s an extension of the calories in, calories out myth. If I’m sleeping, I’m not a treadmill which means I’m not burning calories and I’ll get fat!
No. If your muscles and cells are starving, the food you eat will be shuttled to those areas regardless of the time of day you’re eating. And your body still burns calories while you sleep. This is where Livestrong got it right, even though they repeated the calories per day myth shortly after.
The notion that calories are somehow calculated by the body on a day by day basis is a myth. The relationship between food intake, hunger, satiety, and activity level all play on each other and are regulated by the body. If you over-eat on Monday, your body may drive you to be more active on Tuesday. If you under-eat on Thursday your body may drive you to eat more on Friday.
For these reasons, it’s important to put concepts like this in context. How much did you eat that day already? How active were you? How active are you on average? How much do you eat on average?
You should look at calories more as a medium-term picture. What was the input and output over the course of a week or two? That’s a more realistic view. Pretending that if you need 2500 calories on Monday and you eat 3000 that those 500 extra calories are stored as fat (thus putting you one step closer to obesity) is comically simplistic.
Now, the right.
Eating at night can have inherent problems and the recommendation to not eat at night might be made for reasons other than the myths we’ve already dispelled.
For example, eating at night for many people can tend to be done in a state of mindlessness. Nighttime is when we tend to be watching television, browsing the web, attending events, and socializing — activities that don’t promote healthy eating habits. Mindless eating is one of my top eight unhealthy eating triggers.
I can also see people giving this advice because the majority of people eat enough food during the day, but go back for “fourthmeal” (as Taco Bell calls it — hint, hint). In all fairness though, people who try to solve the “fourthmeal” problem by suggesting people stop eating at night are also the “experts” telling people to eat a low fat, low calorie diet (leaving them starving by 9 or 10pm).
You can fix late night hunger by eating real food and plenty of healthy fat during the day and not disordering your hormones. Saying “don’t eat at night” doesn’t really address the underlying problem.
So no, eating at night won’t make you fat provided you’re eating real food, avoiding ANTI foods, listening to hunger and satiety cues, staying active, and staying mindful. So if you’ve got a grasp on all of that, eat whenever you want.
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s worked with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and programs like Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings.