Last night, I ate dinner at 10pm. It’s not that I forgot about dinner–trust me, I’m always thinking about my next meal–I had a work event, then an hour trek back home, then an hour wait for Seamless (because I’m lazy), so it just happened. It’s not that uncommon of an occurrence for me. Lately, however, I’ve started to wonder: Is eating a late dinner bad for me?
There’s an overload of information out there regarding dinnertime: One widely circulated study covered in Science of Us says an early dinner (as early as 2pm) or skipping dinner altogether can increase the amount of fat you burn; another one finds that eating dinner after 7pm increases risk for heart attack; yet another study said eating at night could be good if it’s carbs, because that may help you control your appetite throughout the next day; another says eating dinner at 10pm makes you consume 248 more calories a day than those who eat earlier. I could go on and on.
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With so many “dos” and “donts” about dinner time out there, I asked dietitians to break through the myths and offer some practical tips about the dinner hour.
There’s no such thing as a set time you should eat dinner.
It all depends on your schedule and lifestyle. Someone who wakes up at 5am could be having dinner at 5pm, while someone who goes to sleep at 1am could be having dinner at 10pm–none of it is inherently wrong or unhealthy, according to Farah Fahad, registered dietitian and founder of The Farah Effect. “I would say three hours before your bedtime is an ideal time to have dinner,” she says, “It is a good amount of time for your food to digest, then at least your food gets to digest and you’re not sleeping on a full stomach.”
Meanwhile, Alissa Rumsey, registered dietitian and author of Three Steps to a Healthier You, advises four to five hours between meals. “Pay close attention to your hunger cues,” she says.
Eat dinner only when you’re hungry for it
Often, we eat according to external influences, i.e. a designated “dinner time” or eating out while socializing, but Fahad says it’s more important to actually feel if you are hungry or not. “If you’re hungry your body is asking for calories. If your body is not asking for calories–the body will store it as fat because it doesn’t need it,” she says, “You start doing a lot of damage to your metabolism.”
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Eating late is less of a concern than what and how much you’re eating
Fahad advises against heavy dinners, “Think about it: Food is energy. Why are you putting so much energy into your body before going to sleep? Why does the body need that energy?” she says, “When you’re going to bed, your body is shutting down.”
Eating a heavy dinner could negatively affect your metabolism
Rumsey says that greasy or high-fat meals “will digest slower and can cause issues with reflux or heartburn.” Fahad adds heavy meals will cause “your blood to go to your digestion and not to the rest of your body and recovering while you’re sleeping.” One telltale sign of a heavy dinner’s impact on your metabolism? Feeling extra tired and low-energy in the morning.
There are certain foods you’d be wise to avoid at the dinner table.
Fahad says intake of carbohydrates-heavy food like pasta, bread, and fried foods should be limited along with desserts. Rumsey agrees, “I recommend not having large amounts of carbs–otherwise that carb turns into sugar in your blood and you get a rise in insulin,” she elaborates, “Since you are just going to bed, you aren’t using that sugar for energy, so you’re more likely to store it as fat.” If you do go for whole grain carbs, make sure to pair it with protein and fat.
If you must eat a late-night snack, make it protein-based.
Sometimes you eat dinner but somehow still feel hungry later in the night. Fahad assures it’s okay to have a snack as long as it’s small and the right kind. Protein-based snacks like string cheese a handful of almonds, whole grain crackers with a bit of guacamole, greek yogurt, and almond butter with an apple can “stabilize your blood sugar when you sleep.”
Rumsey says if you do eat before bed, to at least allow an hour for staying upright before going to sleep “for good digestion.”
You don’t have to stick to an eating schedule, but aim for regularity.
We’ve all had those days where we ate breakfast at 8am but lunch didn’t happen until 4pm…then a social dinner at 6:30pm–try avoiding them. “If you go for a long period of time with an erratic eating schedule, what happens is your body starts losing its hunger and fullness signals,” Fahad warns. Prioritizing having breakfast, lunch, and dinner will train your body to be hungry at appropriate times.