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Meal Timing
Is WHEN you eat as important as WHAT you eat?

What are you having for dinner?
What are you having for dinner?

"When should I stop eating at night?" It's a question I hear over and over from people trying to lose weight. There is a mystical belief that calories consumed late at night are somehow worse than those eaten at any other time during the day.

Diet programs like Atkins, South Beach and Weight Watchers encourage the late-night ban and all warn against bedtime dining. The problem is, that idea appears to be seriously flawed. After all, isn't a calorie the same no matter when it's eaten? If you're on a diet that limits you to 2,000 calories, what's the difference if you eat it all in one sitting or little bits throughout the day?

The most popular theory behind the ban is based on metabolism. Your metabolic rate decreases during sleep, so consuming many calories before bedtime can cause the calories to burn more slowly. Your body would supposedly store more fat and weight gain would be the result.

Well, that's true, sort of. The act of digesting food does burn calories. If you eat several small meals throughout the day, your inner furnace does work more consistently and you do burn slightly more calories. But it's a little more involved than that.

Throughout the day, your body needs energy. As a general rule, the food in your stomach, the last meal you ate, is where your body's energy comes from.

A typical meal takes 2 to 4 hours to digest. If it's been LONGER than 4 hours, you still need energy, but there's no food left in your stomach to draw from. Now your body has two choices. It can draw energy from muscle or fat. Guess which one it uses up first?

Muscle, and here's why. A pound of muscle burns about three times as many calories per day as a pound of fat. If you were living before modern conveniences, the last thing you would want is a bunch of muscle, burning up calories and making you hungry. (Remember, until the last 100 years or so, food was always in limited supply.)

Your body tries to get rid of any muscle by burning it up for energy first. You shed muscle at every opportunity and hang onto the fat. In the past, having a nice layer of fat was important to keep you warm and help you avoid starving to death during the winter. Today all that fat leads to disease and an early death.

If you're waiting until late at night to eat the majority of your calories, your body has been eating up muscle all day to keep you going.


Even more critical than dinner is when you eat breakfast. When you first wake up, your body generally hasn't had food in several hours, so your metabolism has slowed down to conserve energy. Eating breakfast boosts your metabolism and helps you burn up to 10 percent more calories doing your morning activities. The total number of extra calories you burn isn't significant. But the fact your body STOPS burning muscle IS a big deal.


Metabolism isn't the only reason you should eat every 2 to 4 hours; choice is. If you skip a meal, you're more likely to eat high-calorie and high-fat foods when you get hungry. Small frequent meals help you avoid that "starving" feeling and subsequent food binges.


There is one more critical time you need to make sure and eat. That's after your workout. Glycogen synthesis (your muscles ability to repair itself) is three times higher immediately after a workout than if you wait as long as 2 hours later. The sooner you eat or drink, the better your recovery rate.


WHAT you eat is still more important than WHEN you eat. And contrary to what many diet plans say, eating most of your food late at night won't significantly change your weight. BUT, it will cause you to lose more muscle and hang onto more fat. The best advice is simple. Eat early, eat often and practice moderation at every meal. It works.

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
beginning any diet or exercise program.