1 November 2007

Busting Food Myths with Nicole Senior

Eating late at night makes you fat
In this day and age when everyone is busy, it’s difficult to live by the old adage ‘breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper’. The reality is many of us enjoy our main meal in the evening when the travails of the day are behind us. Is this making us fat? Looking at the science overall, the answer is no. When it comes to weight, the overarching principle is the balance between the kilojoules (calories) consumed versus the amount of energy used through physical activity. There are no studies to suggest that eating late at night causes weight gain, however there are possible reasons why big dinners and late night snacks might encourage it.

Nicole Senior

We know that our natural circadian rhythm prefers night for sleeping and not eating. Shift workers who turn their body clocks upside down tend to be heavier and at higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Studies in shift workers suggest that insulin levels are higher in the evenings and the effect of insulin in encouraging body fat storage is well known. While this may be a plausible mechanism for the idea that eating at night makes you fat, we just don’t have the studies to provide a conclusive answer just yet. But do we really need them? Many people find they sleep better and feel fresher the morning after a lighter evening meal – try it for yourself and see.

Practically speaking, eating less at night may help you eat less overall, and perhaps curb that late night TV and chocolate/biscuit/ice cream habit. Choosing the right foods at night can also help control blood glucose levels. Low GI foods at the evening meal can reduce the glycemic response to breakfast the next day, a phenomenon known as the ‘second-meal effect’. Eating less at night may also create a new desire for breakfast, considered the most important meal of the day. It’s a good thing to wake up hungry. Stoke your metabolic furnace with a low GI breakfast such as traditional rolled oats, natural muesli, grainy toast, or a fruit smoothie and you’ll experience better blood glucose levels and less hunger through the morning.

When it comes to your dinner, don’t get too tied up with timetables but rather, focus on eating lots of vegetables or salad, low GI carbs, and modest portions of lean protein (eg meat/fish/chicken). And ask yourself: do I really need dessert? Perhaps finish off with a piece of fruit or cup of herb tea. And remember humans are marvellously adaptable. Culture, tradition and lifestyle are powerful influencers on our eating habits – just ask the Spanish who frequently dine late at night and sleep in the afternoon!

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Dietitian Nicole Senior is Nutrition Editor for Super Food Ideas and author of Eat to Beat Cholesterol. Check out: www.eattobeatcholesterol.com.au