Most of us have been told that in order to lose weight, we should consume the bulk of our daily calories during breakfast and lunch and minimize the amount that we consume at dinner. This is a concept that has been around for many years and has been widely accepted as the truth regarding successful weight loss programs.
More recently, however, some fitness experts have begun to dispute this long-help theory. While many “experts” still recommend limiting your caloric intake at night, others believe that as long as you aren’t consuming more calories than you’re burning, it doesn’t matter when you eat.
Some fitness experts also argue that failure to eat before you go to bed will actually slow down your metabolism. Their theory here is this: if you eat your last meal 3 – 4 hours before you go to bed and sleep for 7 – 8 hours, you’re actually going 10 – 12 hours without food. Going this long without food, they argue, causes your metabolism to slooooooow way down and by the morning, you’re body is almost in starvation mode.
Another point that these critics of reduced nighttime eating make is that there is no law that says, “If you eat food after (insert time here) that food is going to turn to fat on your body.” It’s just not realistic.
What we do know is that there is a law of energy balance and that law is always working on our body. How much energy do you use when you sleep? When you watch TV? Not too much.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview a dietician friend of mine, Tom Fendors, and I asked him about his thoughts regarding this subject. Here are his opinions.
In regard to the theory of calories in vs calories out over a 24-hour period, he disagrees with the whole concept and says that it’s outdated. Essentially, your body requires and uses specific amounts of energy every minute depending on your level of activity. It isn’t a 24-hour cycle; it’s by the minute.
This isn’t a new theory or way of thinking. Almost 20 years ago, Dr. Fred Hatfield suggested that people need to start thinking about and planning their caloric intake in relation to the amount of energy they will be expending over the next 3 – 4 hours. Basically, if you know you’re going to run 10 miles in the next 3 hours, eat and fuel up accordingly. If you know you’re going to go to the movie and sit on your butt for 2 hours, eat accordingly.
As I was discussing this with Tom, he told me about a concept he was following is one where he eats small meals approximately every 3 hours. In addition to this, he practices nutrient timing which involves putting the proper nutrients in his body as his body needs them.
Let’s look at this from a real-life perspective.
If you get home from work around 6 and then are pretty inactive (due to TV, reading, eating, whatever) for the rest of the night, you aren’t burning very many calories between 6 pm and 6 am (assumed wake-up time).
If this is your typical routine (and studies show that this is the typical routine of an overwhelming majority of Americans) then common sense would say that you don’t need to eat your biggest, most calorie dense meal between 6 pm and bedtime. Why would you eat a bunch of food (fuel) if you didn’t have any physiological need for it during the next few hours? It just doesn’t make sense.
Now, if you’re working out or exercising after dinner, then, yes, it definitely makes sense to eat enough to properly fuel your workout.
I know that this is true because I’ve tested it myself. I workout in the morning (if I don’t go first thing, my chances of going at all greatly decrease). Because I workout in the morning, I have a big breakfast (oatmeal, blueberries, honey, eggs). It’s high in calories but they’re healthy calories that help me recover and restore my energy.
Since I don’t exercise at night (I don’t watch a lot of TV but I will spend too much time in front of my computer), I tend to eat lighter after work. I usually have a small amount of protein (fish, chicken or turkey) with a decent amount of veggies. Additionally (and I think this has been a big factor in my weight loss success), I eat an apple right before bed. This gives me about 80 nutritious calories to digest as I sleep and I don’t feel so famished in the morning. As long as I follow this strategy, I’m able to lose or maintain my weight.
On the flip side, if my wife and I go out for dinner or I eat unhealthy or more than I should, then I am ALWAYS heavier the next day. This isn’t an occasional thing; it’s something that I can set my watch by. It generally takes me 2 days to work off the extra weight gained from ONE night of eating poorly.
Why do I gain this weight? Well, if you know anything about restaurant menus, you know that (for the most part) they aren’t designed with your health in mind. They are designed with your taste and satisfaction in mind. What does that mean? It means most of the dishes are cooked with higher amounts of fat than I would use at home (it doesn’t matter if it’s butter, olive oil or bacon grease – fat has a high number of calories and it’s easy to consume a lot of fat in restaurants). I’ve seen grilled chicken sandwiches that had caloric levels above 1300. WTF? It’s a chicken sandwich for crying out loud.
For these reasons, I am convinced that the best way for me to maintain or lose weight is to eat according to my energy needs. I can really blow it out in the morning – eggs, bacon, etc. – as long as I’ve put in a good workout. I know that those calories will get used. I also know that if I ate the same thing I eat for breakfast at dinner, I would gain weight because of my inactivity in the evenings.
So, to sum it up, does nighttime eating make you gain weight? It all depends on you and your level of activity. According to the burn the fat feed the muscle pdf, if you workout at night (before dinner) then you should refuel with a nutritious meal afterwards. If you workout after dinner, then you should eat while viewing your food as fuel for that workout.
If you can, try to eat an apple or other healthy piece of fruit or vegetable right before you go to sleep. You’ll really notice the results. It’s easy to do and it’s tasty.
Weight loss and maintenance require lifestyle changes. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll reach your goal of a happier and healthier you.