Here's a clue: Eating late rarely means salad!
Meal timing simply refers to how calories are distributed throughout the day and interacts to some extent with meal frequency. While the evidence is mixed regarding meal timing and fat loss, the key point to understand when debunking the ‘eating late automatically leads to fat gain’ myth, is the principle surrounding body weight gain and body weight loss.
Put simply, the total amount of body fat gained or lost over a prolonged period depends on whether you are in an energy/calorie surplus or deficit and not due to the consumption of a certain food after an arbitrary time-period. Once total calories (and protein) are matched, there will be no meaningful difference in terms of body fat between differing meal timings.
The late-night-eating myth likely stemmed from anecdotal reports among certain individuals consuming high calorie dense foods and snacks at night when at home watching television. If these eating habits lead to a chronic energy/calorie surplus, an increase in body fat will occur. Without an understanding of energy, it is easy to point the blame at meal timing rather than the greater influx of calories as the primary cause for body fat gain (remember, fat loss and fat gain are determined by energy balance).
The best advice I can give is to experiment and find a meal pattern (meal timing and frequency) that works for you. Don’t be put off by the time of day once total calories are controlled and in-line with your goals.
• Individual variations with respect to circadian rhythm (your 24-hour internal clock) require consideration with any approach towards calorie distribution with some research suggesting that regular eating patterns may result in beneficial effects for certain metabolic health markers (reference).
• Similarly, it may be wise to avoid having a large meal right before bed as this can negatively impact sleep. Large meals consumed very close to bedtime are associated with sleep disturbance. Sleep decreases the activity of the digestive tract, which may become overloaded during the night if food intake is excessive. If you want to optimise your fat loss results, sleep quantity and quality need to be prioritised.
Conclusion – eating late at night does not automatically lead to fat gain unless it contributes towards a net energy/calorie surplus. As with all successful dietary strategies for fat loss, choosing a meal pattern that suits personal preference, lifestyle, goals and one that leads to the greatest adherence trumps all!
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