Ask the Dietitian: Is it Too Late to Eat After 8 p.m.?

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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Ask the Dietitian: Is it Too Late to Eat After 8 p.m.?

It’s common to hear the phrase “don’t eat after 8 p.m.” when you’re trying to lose weight. But when you think about it in terms of calories, the math doesn’t work out. As long as you stick to your goal and eat fewer calories than you burn, you should lose weight.

Here’s what you should know about eating late at night:

THE PROBLEM WITH EATING LATE AT NIGHT

Eating most of your calories during the day rather than at night is helpful because we tend to overeat in the evening. Sadly, your eating choices are not logical, calculated moves solely aimed at getting you to your goal weight. Every decision is guided by emotions and bodily states. Despite good intentions, a crazy commute, hectic schedule, sleep deprivation or other stressor can make it hard to follow through with a healthy diet.

Picture this scenario: During the day you were disciplined with what you ate, but you came home stressed and voracious. Before fixing a meal, you wolf down a handful of chips, cookies, nuts or whatever’s convenient. Tired and sleep-starved, you polish off dinner in front of the TV or computer screen.

Sound familiar? Your evening meal evaporates in a blur because:

  • Willpower, a limited psychological resource, gets exhausted throughout the day, which can make it difficult to resist an extra dessert at dinnertime.
  • Negative emotions can drive emotional eating. It’s not uncommon to use food as a mood regulator, specifically to relieve feelings of stress, anxiety or loneliness. Even if that’s not the case, you may decide to use food as a reward for a hard day’s work.
  • Sleep-deprived from your busy work schedule, you find yourself craving sugary, high-fat foods.

This example paints a dramatic exaggeration of reality, but it makes a point. If you’re eating excess calories in the evening, it adds up over time and prevents you from reaching your goals.

4 TIPS FOR EATING AFTER 8 P.M.

Nighttime may not be the best time to load up on calories, but if you have no other choice, you can still make it work.

1. Keep evening portions small. Instead, plan bigger meals for breakfast and lunch. Eating more calories during the day helps you stay satiated so you aren’t ravenous when dinner rolls around. This also helps if you suffer from heartburn and indigestion; large dinners are not your friend, especially if sleep comes soon after.
2. Avoid trigger foods in the evening. These are the foods that hook you after one bite, and they’re different for everyone. Common trigger foods include potato chips, cookies, ice cream, popcorn or nuts. It doesn’t mean you have to eliminate them from your diet completely, but it’s best to avoid consuming them at night when you are more likely to overeat.
3. Don’t eat in front of screens. This includes TV, computers, phones and video games. Entertainment puts your brain on autopilot so you don’t pay attention to your body’s cues that you are full and satisfied. As a result, you are more likely to consume excess calories.
4. Make sure to prioritize a good night’s rest. When in doubt, go to bed and get some shut-eye. Time and again, research shows sleep deprivation is linked to weight gain because it increases appetite. Not only will sleep help you manage your weight — your heart, brain and immune system will thank you, too.

THE BOTTOM LINE

In a perfect world, you can eat your calories whenever you like with zero consequences. In practice, it’s complicated. With today’s fast-paced world, it can be hard to strike a balance between your career, social obligations and health goals. So, if you find yourself eating late at night, practice the tips mentioned above.

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.

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5 responses to “Ask the Dietitian: Is it Too Late to Eat After 8 p.m.?”

  1. Avatar Bart says:

    Actually, calories in and out does almost nothing to explain this issue. Your referring to that simplistic theory is doing your readers a huge disservice. Try reading some actual research. Our eating and nutritional needs and the HORMONAL RESPONSE to it is tied to circadian rhythm!

    Also, eating some number of calories is totally inadequate to explain satiation, as you CLAIM. Satiation is far more based on needs for protein and fat. There is no end to carbohydrate “satiation”—that’s a myth. Eating simple carbs actually CAUSES hunger, through you body’s hormonal response—insulin—the fat STORING hormone.

    Not eating after eight is great because then you burn through the carbs and glucose, and might have SOME CHANCE to actually lose weight. Cutting calories is stupid and completely ineffective long term as your body will respond by cutting your metabolism. Cut out useless carbs instead, and you will lose weight, and keep it off (so long as you watch out for flour, sugar, pasta, etc)

  2. Avatar Diana S Winkler says:

    The French eat dinner after 8pm everyday. They do not have an obesity epidemic. They eat small portions and walk everywhere they go. They take time to eat mindfully instead of on the run all the time.

  3. Avatar Tina says:

    Actually my doctor says the eating after a certain time to cut it off is WRONG your body continues to burn calories while your asleep so eat what you want before bed within moderation. Because if your going to bed on a empty stomach your body can start pulling from your muscle. If you do cardio first thing in the morning on a empty stomach some people still have food in their system when they wake up but its good to have food in your system while you sleep that way when you do fasted cardio in the morning your body still has some fuel and wont pull from your muscle it will pull from fat for more fuel.

    Trust me I got made fun of for being in shape in high school doing track/sports/weight lifting and being the strongest girl in my gym class, after high school I packed on over 250lbs giving up on myself, I have now lost over 220lbs, so yeah… I have awesome doctors and I have found what works for me. What are myths when losing weight and not eating after a certain time is one of them. Do your research please before you post nonsense!

  4. Avatar Audrey G says:

    I agree with some of the bloggers here. My most hungriest times of the evening have been after 8pm. It truly has to do with what you eat during this time. If you are active (exercising regularly) eating decently throughout, and have long days then you will have hungry evenings. My vote is for planning at least one meal that is nutritious and a reasonable portion of a satiation food if that meal does not hit the spot. Also, keep a window in mind of 1-2 hours if you do eat during this time. Try to keep carbs and sugar at a minimum. I am speaking from experience. I was a night binger (my time was 10pm) and this method helped me get control and shed pounds. The worst thing you can do is ignore hunger if you are hungry at night.

    • Avatar Tina says:

      yup because that is how weight gain gets you is when you ignore your hunger, you gotta keep your metabolism up to lose weight and keep the weight off. Whoever wrote this needs to do more research because they don’t know anything, just sayin!

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