Dinner is to a day what dessert is to dinner,” wrote American author and essayist Michael Dorris. A good dinner, followed by restful sleep, is often the best closing to a hectic or stressful day. But we have all been there—constantly delaying dinner because we are busy with other work, or too tired to get up from the couch, distracted by our favourite TV show, or simply waiting for delivery food to arrive. We are also often guilty of eating a heavy lunch that reduces our appetite until late at night. In our quest for a healthy life, we might be eating healthy foods and counting our calories, but recent research shows that the timing of our dinner is equally important in determining overall health.
Your body’s circadian rhythm, or the natural internal process that controls the sleep-wake cycle, is intrinsically connected to when you eat your meals, according to a study published in Current Biology in 2017, and this impacts the physiological process of your body. In simple terms, this means that for healthy living, when you eat your meals matters as much as what you eat in them.
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What Happens When You Eat Dinner Late?
An early dinner would consist of dinner eaten around 6 or 7 p.m., while a late dinner would be one eaten after 10 p.m. In the study “Metabolic Effects of Late Dinner in Healthy Volunteers”, published in June 2020 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, it was proven that eating dinner late is associated with weight gain and high blood sugar levels, even if the meal consumed was the same as an early dinner. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also proves the claim of weight gain, as it found that people who eat their dinner between 11 p.m. to 5 a.m consume significantly more calories throughout the day as a result of it, which can contribute to risk factors for obesity.
According to the paper “Meal Impact on Circadian Related Health”, published in the same journal in November 2020, it was seen that in healthy people who consumed dinner at 10 p.m. or later, fat utilisation was significantly reduced, causing a peak in triglycerides, the fat that our body cannot immediately use, and this persisted till after breakfast the next day. Even cortisol, the stress hormone, was found to be higher for those who eat their dinner late. This study thus concludess that a late dinner potentially raises the risk of Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome risk.
Benefits of Eating an Early Dinner
1. It boosts your metabolism
Published in Nutrients in 2021, a study conducted by scientists Nakamura et al shows that an early dinner improves 24-hour blood glucose levels, and even boosts lipid metabolism the next day after your breakfast. This is because eating earlier in the evening will increase the duration between dinner and breakfast the next day, causing your body to get its energy needs from stored fat rather than glucose available from food you just ate, the same principle that intermittent fasting is based on.
2. It improves heart health
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine provided experimental evidence in June, 2017 about late dinners causing an increase in “bad” cholesterol (LDL) levels and triglycerides, which can impact your heart health significantly. Also, a late dinner was linked to reduced metabolisation of lipids, and higher production of cortisol, both of which can contribute to the risk factors of cardiovascular diseases.
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3. It prevents digestive issues
If you are eating your dinner late, it is possible that your bedtime will follow right after. In a study published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology in 2013, it was found that eating dinner within three hours of your bedtime contributes significantly to indigestion, bloating, heartburn and acid reflux. By scheduling your dinner earlier, you give your body the chance to get digestion started before you hit the bed, which reduces such risks almost sevenfold.
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4. It helps you sleep better
As mentioned before, eating a late dinner can affect your blood sugar levels. Having a sudden drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia) at night triggers hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can cause night sweats. Moreover, when you experience indigestion, heartburn or acid reflux, it can also seriously affect your sleep quality. Eating at least three hours before bedtime can help you get your required hours of restful sleep.