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Are Early Bird Specials a Key to Weight Loss?

Posted May 19 2012 3:59pm
Dinner plans with friends were complicated by a concert that started at 7 p.m., so we would have to eat at either 5:30 p.m. or after the concert.

"Count us out," said one person. "We never eat after 8 o'clock at night."

"Why the curfew on dinner?" I asked.

"We don't want to gain weight. Don't you know that eating at night is fattening?"

"Oh, that old wive's tale," I thought.

After we agreed to go our separate ways for supper, I conducted a quick scan of Internet chatter on the subject of late night dining and weight gain. It is an old meme that is very much alive, and there is good reason to keep the, "eat late, gain weight," myth circulating. For many, one's home is where their food is, and evenings are when we have the time to consume it. Dinner traditionally contains more calories than breakfast or lunch, or often breakfast and lunch, in part because supper has more components, including alcohol and dessert. If supper is eaten early, say around 6:30 p.m., and bedtime occurs four hours later, several hours of post-dinner snacking may add more calories to the evening's total. It's easy to understand how eating during the evening is associated with weight gain. Staying out of the kitchen after 8 p.m. means not being tempted into finishing leftover pie or the ice cream in the freezer.

But is there something metabolically different about eating early enough for the early-bird special? Does food consumed at 5:30 p.m. have a different metabolic rate compared with food eaten four hours later? Some research suggests that since the body is less physically active at night, we may not be burning off many late-dinner calories. Indeed, weight gain seems to occur when we eat a large meal late in the evening. We go to a wedding reception and eat dinner at 10 p.m. To our horror, the next morning the scale registers a 5-pound weight gain. Of course we haven't really gained five pounds; we are weighing food that is still being processed by our bodies. Moreover, the catered meal may also have been high in salt, so the water we are retaining also adds to our weight. But the shock of seeing the needle on the scale go up is sufficient to make people like our friends adhere to the "no late eating" rule.

Indeed, if late evening eating promotes fat storage and obesity, then shouldn't obesity rates be extremely high in countries whose food culture is based on dining when most of us are watching the late night news? To be sure, obesity rates are creeping upward seemingly everywhere. However, in countries such as Spain, Italy, and several South American countries, e.g., Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, where late night dining is culturally sanctioned, the obesity rates are not nearly as high as they are in the U.S.

It's important to remember, however, that whenever one overeats, whether it be at a breakfast buffet, an early-bird special or a late-night Chinese restaurant, the effect is the same; the excess calories are stored as fat. But might eating late at night push us more readily into becoming overweight because our guard over-controlling our calorie intake decreases the later we eat? Is it possible that fatigue or the cumulative stress of a very long day, or simple hunger because many hours elapsed since lunch, might cause us to gobble rather than eat slowly, choose unhealthy but tasty foods because we feel entitled to indulge in what we want so late at night, and consume larger than necessary amounts because tiredness trumps will power?

If so, you can still eat late at night without worrying about weight gain if you follow these suggestions
1. When dinner is routinely eaten late, eat lightly. Follow the European tradition of consuming the big meal of the day at lunch and choose a simple meal of salad, soup and some bread and cheese or yogurt and fruit for the late dinner.

2. Snack like the Argentineans, who rarely eat dinner before nine and often not before 11p.m. They break for coffee and a carbohydrate snack around five in the afternoon, as the workday does not end before 8 o'clock. You can skip the caffeine part of the snack if it may interfere with sleep but the carbohydrate is crucial for taking away hunger, a small bag of pretzels, or half a bagel, will keep you feeling full for a few hours because serotonin, which is made after eating the carbohydrate, will make you feel full for several hours. When you finally get to eat dinner, you won't be so hungry that you will eat too much, too quickly.

3. Be cautious about drinking alcohol at a late dinner. Alcohol can weaken will power, and people who drink before eating are known to increase their calorie intake. Even though a few glasses of wine are relaxing, what you want to avoid is relaxing your vigilance over what you are ingesting.

Finally, if you are tired and desperate for sleep, don't stay awake to eat dinner. Your body will forgive you for skipping a meal.
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