The only time you gain weight with late-night eating is if you eat too much. The myth that dinner calories go straight to your hips probably originated from a decade-old study on men that found the body burned a few extra calories digesting food (called “diet-induced thermogenesis” or DIT) after breakfast and lunch, than after dinner. This study led to the assumption that the body resisted weight gain through mid-day, but packed on pounds at the evening meal because a lower DIT meant more calories were available for storage. No research since has added credence to the theory. Even if there was a slight fat-storing effect at dinner, it’s too small to make any difference in a person’s weight. In truth, people let their guard down at night and are more prone to overeating, especially comfort foods like ice cream and chips. It is the extra calories, not the time of day, that leads to weight gain.
Granted, late-night noshing can be a sign of a general out-of-whack eating schedule that can lead to the Night Eating Syndrome, where you eat the bulk of your calories later in the day, wake up not hungry so skip breakfast, then pig out that night. The problem here is not only are you overeating at night, but you’re skipping the most important meal of the day – breakfast. Breakfast – especially if it’s whole grain cereal, milk, and fruit – is one of the most nutritious and low-fat meals of the day, so it makes sense that breakfast eaters consume fewer total calories and have an easier time managing their weights than people who overate the night before then skipped breakfast.
Don’t give up your late-in-the-day exercise. Every one of us needs to exercise daily, and we should fit it in whenever and wherever we can. Just be watchful that you’re not overeating when you finally do sit down to a meal. Or, rethink your eating schedule. There’s no reason to save the biggest meal of the day until after you exercise, when you are more apt to overeat. On the days when you exercise late, try having dinner at lunchtime, then have a snack before your workout, and another snack as a late-night munch. And, I’m not talking energy bars and a cola! Each snack should include a whole grain, one or more fruits or vegetables, and a protein. For example, your pre-workout snack/mini-meal might include half a whole wheat bagel topped with lox, fat-free cream cheese, sprouts, and a thick tomato slice served with calcium-fortified OJ. After your workout, snack on black bean tortilla chips, hummus, and red pepper slices served with a glass of nonfat milk. That way you fuel your workout and boost health without sacrificing your waistline.