Thursday, June 3, 2010

Don't Eat After 8 PM. Or Was It 7?

There is no diet rule I have heard stated, and believed, as frequently and as strongly as this one – the time after which you should not, under any conditions, eat. People cling to it like a religion, with such conviction. And the scientific basis for this guideline? None. That’s right. And it’s not because it hasn’t been studied, because it has. Each time the conclusion is the same – it is not about the hour you eat, but about how much you consume relative to your body’s need. Yeah, but what about what Oprah says? She and her trainer say you should not eat after 8:00 PM, never mind hunger, or working late. But doesn’t it turn to fat at night? I’m not burning any calories so it must go right to my thighs, right?

Your body burns calories, its fuel, 24/7. As long as you are breathing, you are burning calories. As long as your heart is beating, calories are used. True, you are not using as many as when you are running or walking or moving. But you still require fuel. Yet you are not eating every moment of the night (even if you struggle with nighttime binge eating, there are stretches of time when you do not take in food). So where are these calories coming from which are keeping you alive? For the most part, we draw from a starch called glycogen, stored in our liver and our muscles. Between meals and when we sleep, we rely on this reserve to maintain our blood sugar and keep us going. Yes, even while we are sleeping we are using calories.

Now let’s look at how much sense this “Don’t eat after 8:00” rule makes. At 7:57 it’s okay to eat, but at 8:01 it turns to fat? And if you worked until late, maybe got stuck in a commute, and arrived home after 8:00 PM, have you missed your opportunity to eat? Why should your body no longer need the nourishment? What are we thinking?

So where did this thinking come from? I can only imagine that it was a well-intentioned attempt to help people limit their food intake. To have a cut off so people wouldn’t continue to eat when they didn’t need to. And I would agree, that if you just had dinner at 7:50 PM, and you are looking to eat again at 8:05, you should reconsider, but not because it is after 8:00! You should delay eating to give your body a chance to assess its need.  
If you are in the habit of eating at night not out of hunger, but for the many other reasons we all reach for food, you should look closely at this pattern. What’s driving this eating? What are you looking for this food to do? Is it your way of relaxing? Or simply something you associate with watching television? And does it work? No doubt, there is a temporary benefit. If that eating didn’t meet a need, you wouldn’t continue to do it. So is there an issue with eating at night? Only if you are eating in a mindless, disconnected way. And when you are eating without regard to hunger. But if you are hungry, please eat, regardless of the hour.  And enjoy every bite.



  1. Interesting reading. I am a recovering binge eater learning to let go of all of the "rules" I have heard of through the years of being fat, thin, skinny and everything in between. Interesting this past week I ate to appetite and I lose weight and ate fairly balanced (including wedding cake at my brother's wedding). I am learning to trust myself again with food and it's great and liberating!!!

  2. Well it's probably not a good idea to lie down with a very full stomach and sleep every night like that. That said, I go to the gym at night and come back hungry and I EAT DINNER AFTER MIDNIGHT.

    I have to refuel. (I'm an owl--I tend to go to bed at around 2 or a bit later). So I eat late. And you know what? I ate a lot earlier when I had high blood pressure, weighed 30 pounds more and was sedentary a few years ago.

    I eat around half my daily calories, maybe slightly more, at night and then go to bed a couple hours later. And I'm not fat.

    If I tried to stop eating at 8 pm I'd be a cranky, low blood sugared horror (not to mention not recovering well from workouts)

  3. Glad you can see that eating late at night, when you're hungry and your body needs the fuel works just fine! Just came back from a late dinner myself--and it's 10:30 PM!
    Thanks for commenting!

  4. I, too, am someone who has consumed a lot of my calories in the evening (and throughout the evening--I'm sure half my days worth of calories!), so it is relief to hear that I CAN lose weight if I eat after a certain hour. I feel like what I am learning is to to eat more balanced throughout the day and become more aware of whether or not I am truly hungry in the evening. I did a lot of grazing... eating mindlessly in front of the t.v. for example. Lori has given me new skills. Now, I don't eat in front of the t.v. I sit at the kitchen table. I put what I'm going to eat on a plate. I am trying to enjoy and taste my food, becoming more mindful of it, one bite at a time. And, I know, if I truly am hungry, after waiting for 45 minutes to an hour to assess, I can eat again.

  5. Ah, so great to begin to trust our bodies!
    And please consider joining as a follower!

  6. Learning to trust my body is new for me (and not something I had been taught in any of my few consultations with a nutritionist in the past, who also seemed to have "restrictive" suggestions that felt difficult!). I think I probably ate with my emotions before. It will take time, I know... However, it makes more sense to me than anything I have learned in the past! And I am looking forward to learning how to become better at it!

    I thought I did join as a follower?

  7. What about the suggestion to " close the kitchen " a couple hours, give or take, before going to sleep. As long as one has had a satisfactory meal /snack during this time frame? With exception to a light snack, say fruit and cheese, or a yogurt, I feel terrible if I indulge in excessive eating right before I turn in. Makes for a less than perfect nights sleep, and I don't feel that " nice " sensation of hunger that usually makes for a great breakfast. That is not to say I don't occasionally have a late night rich eating experience, late night dinnerwith friends or whateve......, I try to go with the 80/20 rule of heathy eating behaviours...

  8. I do not support hard and fast rules such as "close the kitchen", but it's fair to say that if you just ate a balanced meal you likely don't need more fuel. I suggest delaying the idea (using distraction to do so) until about 40-45 minutes. If hungry, I don't care what time it is, it is justifiable to eat!

    And I'd agree, that "excessive" eating won't make you feel good. But caution on overgeneralizing. That's not to say that eating is the issue, just over-eating!

  9. A big part of my recovery from AN at the moment is focused on the rules I still live by. Like, dinner being eaten between 7-8pm and not before, in case I am hungry later, and not later because 'it will make me fat'

    I keep challenging this every time it occurs. Like eating dinner at 8.50pm the other evening and increasing the size of supper - I find that every time I challenge it, it gets a bit easier to eat outside of the time frames I set for myself about 15 year ago!

    I need to remind myself when I was in control - not my ED- I would often eat a late dinner with friends after shopping, and guess what, I can see now that I was not obese!

    Also, on the point of 'delaying' eating. As a restrictive AN, I am trying to listen to my body and eat as soon as I am hungry because the longer I delay eating, the more chance 'Ana' has to jump in on the situation and restrict when I do eat and blur what hunger is. However, I can see how this may benefit those who have a tendency to over eat or binge - to establish what their body is saying.

    I suppose it comes down to the age old - listen to your own body doesn't it?