Q: How late is too late to eat? I get home from school at 8:30 p.m. three nights a week and don’t usually have dinner ready until closer to 9pm. I’m trying to lose weight and eat better in general and I’ve heard that eating after 8 p.m. makes you more likely to gain weight. Would it be better to skip dinner on the nights I have late classes?
Valerie K., Los Angeles, CA
A: Eating after 8pm won’t make you gain weight. But eating the wrong foods, or too much food because you’re starving by the time you sit down (or stand up) to eat, will. So don’t skip dinner — either pack your dinner to-go on the nights you have class or opt for a more substantial late afternoon snack to hold you over, and a lighter dinner when you get home. Some lighter late night dinner options could be an open-faced tuna or salmon salad sandwich on whole wheat bread, a veggie omelet, a salad topped with grilled chicken or salmon, or a smaller portion of your regularly planned dinner.
Our metabolisms don’t have timers, so the food that you eat at a 6 p.m. dinner is processed by your body the same way the food you eat at your 9 p.m. dinner is. Choosing healthful foods, in the right amounts, throughout the day makes much more of an impact on your weight loss efforts than the exact timing of your meals. The exception to this is breakfast — eating a morning meal has been shown to give you a slight metabolic benefit. However, research shows that the major benefits to eating your calories earlier in the day have more to do with healthy habits, and keeping your appetite under control, than to actual boosts in metabolism.
A study looking at people who went to sleep later versus those who hit the pillow earlier found that night owls tended to consume more calories and be heavier — mainly because they had more awake time after eating dinner to reach for late night snack foods.
The bottom line is that starting your day with breakfast, and keeping after-dinner snacking to a minimum, might help with your weight loss efforts, but the amount of food (and your food choices) still have the most impact on your weight. The ideal is to make healthful choices in appropriate amounts and remain consistent with your daily eating schedule, so that you don’t let yourself go too long without eating.