It has been long suspected in health circles that eating late at night increases the chance of weight gain. New research presented at the 2020 European and International Obesity Congress may have finally confirmed it.
The study, conducted by researchers at Ulster University in Northern Ireland, was led by Ph.D. student Judith Baird. The intention was to determine if consuming calories after 6 p.m. resulted in an overall higher daily caloric intake.
The researchers looked at food diaries and health data from about 1,200 adults in the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey.
The results showed that on average, people consumed about 40% of their daily calories after 6 p.m.
“Because we live in Western society and our schedules have become more 24 hours, I expected we would consume most of our calories in the evening, but 40% was quite high,” Baird remarked.
The researchers also discovered that those who consumed a higher percentage of their total calories in the evening were more likely to consume more calories throughout the entire day. Not only that, but the food they were eating was more likely to have less nutritional value.
Late-night eaters were eating more junk food and consuming more alcohol than those who consumed the majority of their calories during the day.
“If you eat most of your calorie intake earlier in the day it might help to reduce your overall calorie intake,” Baird said. “[Our work] suggests that it might be useful to consider the time of day when developing nutritional interventions [for weight loss and health] because it helps reduce overall energy intake.”
While the correlation between evening eating and weight gain is clearly there, Healthline reported that research doesn’t necessarily support causation in this case.
Previous researchers hypothesized that eating late at night disrupted the body’s circadian rhythm, so the body couldn’t process calories the same way, making you more likely to gain weight.
However, studies revealed that the time you eat isn’t what matters, but the quality of food and how much you eat does.
In that case, the new research does show that those who eat past 6 p.m. are more likely to eat a less nutritious diet and consume more calories. And, while cutting out nighttime eating may be helpful to some in controlling caloric intake, as long as you aren’t eating more calories than you need, it really doesn’t seem to matter when you consume them.
Healthline puts it simply: “Physiologically, calories don’t count for more at night. You won’t gain weight by merely eating later if you eat within your daily calorie needs.”
If you do want to avoid those late-night calorie cravings, some experts suggest that eating a good breakfast could be the key.
“Many studies have shown that eating breakfast is typically associated with healthier diets and this research demonstrates the other end of that see-saw.,” nutritional epidemiologist Laura Johnson said. “Breakfast is notoriously the most nutrient-rich meal for most people and if you eat a greater percentage of your calories after 6 pm then it’s highly likely you are missing breakfast.”
Medical News Today supported this claim, noting that many people break their evening fast with what is often their smallest meal of the day. This results in more cravings as the day goes on and a hunger peak around 8 p.m. A heartier breakfast could help satisfy cravings longer, so there’s less caloric consumption in the evening hours.
“An outstanding and important question raised by this work is whether the time of eating per se causes the poorer diet or if it’s simply a reflection of the strong cultural traditions around the type of food we eat normally at different times of day,” Johnson said.
Baird said this research is just the beginning when it comes to answering questions about calorie consumption and time of day.
“Next, we want to look at the types of food and eating circumstances. For example, are [people]…eating in company or alone in front of the television? It might be that the setting in which people eat drives the consumption of energy-dense food…People are often more sedentary in the evening and this might affect food choice,” she said.