In my practice, I often meet clients who are afraid to eat after 7 p.m.
Just last week, I met a client who stopped eating by 5 p.m. every night as a rule. Some nights, she was successful at fighting her hunger, and others, she was at the refrigerator by 9 p.m. I told her something many Americans need to learn: there's nothing wrong with eating later in the evening, as long as it's not the only meal of the day. In many other countries, it is customary to eat dinner at nine routinely with no problem, so clearly something else is behind our American weight crisis.
The problem related to eating late is all about the quantity and quality of the food consumed -- not the hour at which it is eaten. If you eat after 7 p.m., you won't suffer any negative consequences. The issue for most busy Americans is that food is not regularly consumed throughout the day, so dinner becomes the main meal. Hectic schedules, stress and a lack of planning all contribute to common reasons some do not eat over the course of a day. When dinner becomes one's main source of energy, it's easy to over-consume as the body is often starved by that time.
Optimal health and effective weight loss require eating small, smart portions throughout the day and even into the evening. Your body and brain need to be fueled on a regular, consistent basis, even if you are not active. The reason is because our bodies contain a hormone called Ghrelin, which is a hunger hormone. It determines the amount of food we eat as well as our weight (1, 2). If food is not regularly consumed, ghrelin production spikes, driving us to overeat. That's why eating throughout the day is beneficial -- it controls your Ghrelin level, which, in turn, controls your hunger. Eating throughout the day also keeps your metabolism active (3), which aids in weight management.
I recommend following the 70 percent rule, which means you should consume 70 percent of your calories before dinner time, leaving 30 percent of your calories for your evening meal. This 30 percent can be eaten at any time of the evening, as long as you allow 90 minutes to digest it before you go to sleep. So if you are a busy professional that cannot eat before 7 p.m., do not worry; you will not turn into a "pumpkin" by eating after this time.
So start your day off right -- by eating breakfast within one hour of waking. If you exercise in the morning, consume a pre-workout snack, followed with breakfast after your workout. Then eat something sensible every three to four hours. I don't care what you call the meal, just eat!
1. D.F. Cummings, et. al, Plasma Ghrelin and Hunger Scores in Humans Initiating Meals Voluntary Without Time and Food-Related Cues. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 287: E297-E304, 2004
2. A.M. Wren, et. al, Ghrelin Enhance Appetite and Increases Food Intake In Humans. The Journal of Clinical Endocrynology & Metabolism 86 (12): 5992-5995, 2009
3. Petra Platte, et. al, Resting Metabolic Rate and Diet-Induced Thermogenesis in Restrained and Unrestrained Eaters. International Journal of Eating Disorders. Volume 20, Issue 1, Pages 33-41, 1996
Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice in San Francisco, California. He is a national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and the founder of Eating Free