Should I Really Not Eat After 8:00pm?

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I got this question from a reader on my Facebook page and wanted to devote a blog post to it because it fits right in with the intuitive eating discussion.

What is the preferred way to start your day food wise to set yourself up for success throughout the day? [I have] seen/read... things like "morning fasting: waiting to eat until 11" vs. "breakfast is the most important meal of the day". On that same note... I've heard you shouldn't eat anything after 8pm.

Great question! I have read/heard many things related to meal timing as well including that you shouldn't eat "carbs" after 6:00pm or that fasting for an entire day once per week is actually beneficial for health. This seems counterintuitive to what most of us have heard about the benefits of small frequent meals and breakfast being so important for cognitive function, energy levels and setting the tone for the rest of the day. So what the heck is the right answer? 

Intuitive Eating

Looking at this from the standpoint of Intuitive Eating - the clock should not be a regular indicator of when to eat. Sometimes we eat before a long meeting/event to prevent extreme hangriness later even though we aren't truly hungry for a meal at the time. But really, time is an arbitrary number that our bodies don't know, as is the measure of calories. That's why seeing people diet makes me die a little inside - each day is likely going to be different in terms of how much we want/need to eat so learning to listen to our internal signals is vital. Our bodies are sophisticated enough to let us know when we are hungry and what we are craving without rules. 

On Fasting

Eating in the morning is an important process to consider. We go all night without food and then comes breakfast (i.e. breaking the fast). From a physiological standpoint it's ideal to eat within an hour or two of waking up to prevent a starvation-like state which can lead to increased energy storage and decreased metabolic rate (as a way to conserve energy stores); not to mention, we really need to fuel our brain at this point! And no, coffee isn't enough. Fasting (which is what you are doing by holding off on eating for several hours at time) doesn't have any proven health benefits and most of the time seems to set people up for overeating later. 

Nighttime Eating

In regards to night-time eating. It gets a bad rap, mostly because when people think "snacking" they usually think fun foods like ice cream, chips, chocolate, etc. However if you are truly hungry, you will likely want something more substantial like a bowl of cereal or an apple with peanut butter to hold off hunger pangs. As noted above, there isn't a specific reason why your body would treat something eaten at 6:30pm differently than something eaten at 8:01pm, but if you are consistently hungry after dinner, you might try to get to the root of the cause since eating before bed can disrupt sleep patterns (as your stomach works to digest the food). 

Based on all of this, here is what I would recommend:

  1. Don't feel obligated to eat as soon as you wake up, but don't force yourself to hold out until a certain time either. Instead, just eat when your body tells you it's time. If you aren't a huge breakfast eater, you might have something smaller like a piece of fruit and some nuts. There is no need for a large hot meal everyday. 

  2. Hungry after dinner? No problem, have a snack with some protein and fiber. You might, however, want to consider why you need extra fuel as you are winding down your day before bed. Extra active that day? Stressed out? Bored? Did you eat enough at dinner? I have worked with clients/patients in the past who try to "be good" by only eating protein and non-starchy vegetables at dinner, only to be left feeling famished an hour later. This is where nighttime snacking can take a turn for the worse. Aim for balance and satisfaction at dinner to avoid this preoccupation with the kitchen afterwards. 

Hope that clears up some misconceptions!