Is Eating After 6 p.m. Really Making You Fat?
“I don’t truly know where this rule came from,” says Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and adjunct assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, noting that there’s nothing magical about 6 p.m.
And honestly, who is even home from work—let alone sitting at the kitchen table—by 6 p.m.?
The Clock-Weight Connection
That being said, while the body doesn’t fiendishly stockpile food as fat when the clock strikes 6 p.m., eating at night is linked to weight gain. And limiting late-night eating has been shown to result in weight loss, too. This is likely because no one gets out of bed in the middle of the night to raid the refrigerator for kale.
“People are eating a bag of chips, sweets, or other potentially high-calorie foods,” says Hunnes. So eliminating late-night eating often results in eating healthier. Case in point: When Brigham Young University researchers had 29 young men stop eating between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. for two weeks, they lost an average of about half a kilo.
When they were allowed to eat at night for the following two weeks, they gained 0.6kg back. This all came down to calories: When the guys cut out nighttime snacking, they reduced their daily intake by an average of 238 calories.
Hungry at Night? Do This
A lot of late-night munching is mindless, which isn’t helping either. Mindless eating is consistently linked to overeating and weight gain. But if you’re legitimately hungry in the evening or even late at night, don’t be afraid to eat. You should never push through hunger pangs because of what the clock says.
That philosophy doesn’t really work for weight-loss and it fosters an unhealthy relationship with food. Instead, reach for foods like produce, whole grains, or lean proteins, says Hunnes. And keep portions on the small side—you can always go back for seconds if you’re still hungry.
If late-night hunger is a pretty typical occurrence for you, you’re probably not eating enough during the first half of the day. “Instead of thinking about not eating in the evening, focus on fueling well all day long,” says dietitian Anna Rossinoff, R.D., co-founder of Eat with Zest.
“Clients tell me that they try to cut back on calories throughout the day, but they get home from work and find themselves eating out of control,” says Rossinoff.
Your body doesn’t really know what time it is, but it does know when it’s deprived of fuel, she says. Your move: Start your day off with a hearty breakfast containing about 20 grams of protein. Follow that with another protein-rich balanced meal every three to four hours, says Rossinoff.
“If you end up eating after 6 p.m., don’t sweat it,” she says. “But, if you fuel yourself adequately all day long, you probably won’t be nearly as hungry at night,” she says.