Does Nighttime Eating Lead to Gain Weight?Posted on Sep 21st 2010 12:00PM by Liz Neporent
The British Medical Journal recently put this persistent diet myth to rest -- at least I hope it did. As the journal pointed out, part of the reason so many people stubbornly cling to this belief is that, at first glance, legitimate studies seem to support it. In an oft-referenced 2002 Swedish study of 83 obese women and 94 non-obese women, the obese women reported eating more meals, more frequently later in the day. But as the BMJ notes, just because nighttime eating is linked to being overweight doesn't automatically mean it's the cause of the surplus pounds. The heavier women were not just indulging in more midnight snacks, they were also eating more calories. And when you take in more calories than you burn off, you gain weight. That is a basic biological equation.
When total calories are taken into account, most studies have found that nighttime eating is not to blame for weight gain. Another Swedish study, this time using 86 obese men and 61 men of normal weight, found no differences in weight gain when the timing of eating was considered. Another study on nighttime eating that followed 2,500 subjects also came to the conclusion that nocturnal eating is not the culprit, but consuming more than three times a day is a factor for weight gain. Kind of makes you rethink the common diet advice of eating six small meals a day, doesn't it?
By the way, numerous studies have connected skipping breakfast to weight gain, but not because missing your morning bowl of cereal leads to more nighttime eating. Breakfast skippers tend to eat more calories overall than those who make the time to eat earlier in the day. Here the same reasoning prevails: You tend to do better with weight control when you distribute your calories evenly throughout the day, so you aren't as likely to overeat at any one meal. It seems that most people (at least in Western cultures) do best on a three-meals-a-day plan, although that does vary by individual. And once again, eating fewer calories than you burn leads to weight loss.
Any weight loss plan that advises you to stop eating after a certain time of day is not basing the recommendation on real science but instead employing a trick to restrict your calorie intake. Tricks like this always fail you because they aren't very realistic in the long term. Eventually, you'll want to enjoy a late dinner with friends, go to a party or have some popcorn at the movies.
But hey, that's just my hard-won opinion based on years of paying attention to the research, working on my own weight and helping others with their fitness programs. You may have a different opinion. I'm listening. Post it here or tweet me.
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