This is a super-common question we see a lot — what time is best to eat, or conversely, when is the worst time to eat?
Is There a ‘Late Night Eating’ Myth?
If we’d been writing this article a few months ago, there’s no doubt we would have quoted a few common responses online, and told you that in the end, there’s zero evidence to support time-of-day eating theories. A calorie in is a calorie out, in other words, and your body doesn’t process food or calories different when you’re sleeping than when you’re awake.
If you do a search online, you’ll find lots of evidence for this theory. Take a quick look at these quotations:
The common assumption is that eating late at night will not give your body the chance to burn off the calories and you will gain weight. The truth is that your body processes calories the same way at night and during the day. The problem with late-night eating is that people tend to indulge in junk food rather than something healthy and that is what leads to weight gain.
There is no magic time after which the body stores fat. For instance, if you eat the same exact meal at 6 pm or at 8 pm, is one more caloric than the other? No, each meal has the same number of calories. What really matters is the total amount of food and drink you have over the course of a week, or a month or longer, and how much energy you expend during that timeframe.
This is a very commonly-believed weight loss myth. But it doesn’t really matter when you eat, only how many calories you eat and burn in a day. Whether you’re eating in the morning or at midnight, your body turns any extra calories into fat.
So It Seems Like a Myth. But Hold On…
But then, hang a second — there’s a BBC article floating around from last September that seems to go against what all these studies are saying:
Scientists found that when mice ate at unusual hours, they put on twice as much weight, despite exercising and eating as much as others.
The study, in the journal Obesity, is said to be the first to show directly that there is a “wrong” time to eat.
In the end, what does this tell us? We have one study that shows a definite link in mice. We have lots of other studies (some with monkeys) that show no link whatsoever. And we have lots of circumstantial evidence that points to bad eating habits getting worse at night. That shouldn’t really be a surprise — when we aren’t sitting down for a proper meal, but rather just scarfing food out of the fridge, all those things that kick in: portion control, the sense of taking more time to eat, talking with someone else at the table — they just aren’t there.
Everyone’s a Scientist (Including Us!)
But there’s a larger issue here: we’re at risk of being snowed over by studies and facts, and there’s nothing like a good diet study to make everyone (ourselves included) an amateur scientist. Really, is there any other aspect of our lives in which we trumpet (or parrot, or dismiss) the results of scientific studies so much as with diet and exercise?
I’m not trying to push an anti-science approach, but there have been tons of studies that both prove and disprove many of the big nutritional theories out there. Michael Pollan addresses this science-fixation quite well in In Defence of Food — he says America “knows more” about what it eats than any other nation in the world, and yet it eats worse than nearly all of them. Again, read all the studies you want, but always remember that the media loves to hype up what looks like a definitive myth-smashing or myth-confirmation study, often at the expense of coherency.
The Internet Makes it Easy to Prove Either Side.
Just as a reminder, if you search online for “eating late at night”, you’ll get two BBC articles on the first page of results. One is called ‘Eating at night myth exploded’, and the other is called ‘Eating late at night adds weight‘. Both report scientific studies in a way that’s accessible to the general public. One is right, one is wrong; or wait — both are wrong. Or maybe both are right.
In the end, we think it’s best to move past the minutia of studying mice and monkeys to figure out if it’s a good idea to eat that sandwich at 2AM. If you’re doing everything else right, eating well and with lots of variety, in moderation, and working out, these are the kinds of debates you can start to forget about.
What About Spain?
After all, there’s a very healthy Mediterranean country out there by the name of Spain. They eat notoriously late, but they also eat very well. While obesity has doubled in Spain over the last 23 years, it’s not due to some epidemic of late eating, which has gone on for a very long time. Rather it’s the same old culprits — prepared and fast food, and increased ignorance of traditional cuisine.
So — if you’re already eating well, you probably don’t have much to worry about. On the other hand, there is some new evidence that suggests cutting out late night eating might make a big difference — to both the healthy and the not-so-much among us.
Over to You!
We’re curious about your experiences — have any of you cut out eating late at night? Did it make a difference? Are there any of you following a great nutritional plan, exercising regularly, who still hit the fridge (or eat meals) really late, with no effect? Are you in a country (like Spain, or Italy) that eats dinner closer to 9PM than 6PM? Tell us about it!