Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Diet Myth: Eating at Night Causes Weight Gain

Many diet programs will often instruct participants to avoid eating after 8 p.m. because of the theory that food eaten late at night will be stored as fat due to inactivity during sleep.

A study conducted at the Oregon Health and Science University studied this advice and found that even when up to 65% of calories are eaten at large evening meal, subjects were no more likely to store the food as body fat than those who had eaten their biggest meal earlier in the day. Another study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found “the average interval between the time of last episode of eating and time to bed…were not significantly associated statistically with the risk of obesity.”

What is true is that people who skip meals or severely restrict calories during the day in an effort to lose weight tend to over-reach their calorie limits by gorging at a night meal or by snacking on high-fat, high-calorie foods. These people are more likely to be overweight than those who space their calorie intake more evenly throughout the day and balance it with enough activity to burn off excess.

Calories are stored as fat when energy intake exceeds the amount needed for normal metabolism and physical activity. While your body may store excess as fat during periods of inactivity and rest, fat stores are in constant mobilization during activity and waking hours. Continual overindulgence over a long period of time is the cause of weight gain, not the time of day the calories are consumed.

Another cause of excess nighttime eating is also known as "mindless eating". Eating while watching television is known to cause a person to take in more calories than they need or are even aware of. Yale University studied children ages 7-11 and found that those who watched television containing food commercials ate 45% more while watching the show than children who watched the same cartoon without commercials. The study found the same phenomenon in adults, leading to the statement “Food advertising triggers automatic eating, regardless of hunger, and is a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic.”

Tips for Night-Eaters:

  • Calculate the total number of calories you need to maintain or lose weight. Divide these into meal/snack goals evenly spaced throughout the day. Remember to include provision for an evening snack, if that is what you enjoy. Feelings of deprivation are a primary cause of diet failure. A diet journal is a very helpful tool in tracking calorie intake.
  • Your evening meal should include a balanced variety of protein and slow-digesting/high-fiber carbs, such as vegetables and whole grains. Refined carbohydrates such as white bread and sugary foods are digested first and do not stay in the stomach long, leading to decreased satiety (feeling full) and a tendency to eat more calories than the body needs.
  • You will almost always eat too much if you have a large bowl of popcorn in your lap while watching your favorite evening show. Have a designated place to eat (not in front of the television) and portion out your servings before sitting down.
  • When snacking at night, strive for a healthier option than ice cream or cookies. Or, if you have reached your calorie limit for the day, try a non-calorie alternative such as decaf herbal tea. Another option is to distract yourself from the craving with a walk or a good book.
  • If late-night snacking is a problem area, put distance between yourself and your favorite comfort food. Don’t purchase the junk food that will call your name from the refrigerator or pantry, and you will be less likely to grab it in the throes of a craving.