In our struggle to get that perfect body and fight unwanted weight, we try out several diets, nutrients, behaviours and exercise. Eating late in the night certainly seems to be associated with extra kilos. This is supported by research on animals, circadian rhythms and hormonal shifts through the day. It is no wonder that many night shift workers gain up to 10-15 kgs per year.
Sunrise and sunset impact the functioning of nearly every organ. However, scientists now hypothesise another circadian clock around food. This implies that eating food at different times of the day is likely to impact the body differently and can be a factor in contributing to the development of diseases — from obesity, heart disease, diabetes,high blood pressure and cancer.
According to studies, hunger peaks in the late evening, creating a tendency to eat larger meals at night. The tendency to eat the largest meals in the evening, when high-energy foods are plentiful, could contribute to the rising prevalence of obesity.
This explains why shift workers may be particularly vulnerable to this tendency as they remain awake longer during the times of highest circadian appetite, especially for sweet, salty and starchy foods.
Disturbed circadian rhythms also adversely affect gastro-intestinal function and immunity. Common digestive complaints include hyper-acidity, gastritis, constipation and irritable bowel syndrome.
Interestingly, not only does late night eating effect metabolic health, scientific studies have demonstrated that eating late affects cognitive performance and memory. According to new evidence, meals at the wrong time of the day have far-reaching effects on learning, memory and recall.
Eating during the day simply means following the natural biological pattern, where the day is for eating and night is for fasting. In fact, digestive rest is critical and a 12-hour gut rest has been found to be beneficial.
Guidelines for obesity management should be formulated to include the impact of the new circadian rhythm around food, to address not only what and how much we eat, but also when we eat. So, simply put, ‘a calorie’ in the morning may not work as ‘a calorie’ in the evening.
Some tips to avoid heavy dinners at night
For those who work late, breaking up the meal and dividing calories between office and home would help prevent loading up calories late at night.
Divide your dinner into two parts. Eat a substantial part — preferably the grains (cereals and pulses), sandwiches, wraps, rice, pasta or cheela at work — and then eat your vegetables or salad or soups, milk or fruit later in the night, when you reach home.
Or else, take a light snack — roasted grains, nuts, seeds, fruit, soups, salads, milk or yogurt — in the evening and reduce portions of carbohydrate-rich foods at dinner.
In social outings, where dinner is served often in the early hours of the morning, it is sensible to eat and go. If you have to eat, restrict yourself to small portions and fill up with a low-calorie beverage.
Alternately, eat a light home cooked meal or salad before leaving to prevent excessive hunger as you reach the party.
For those who drink, limit alcohol to the appropriate quantities and choose snacks smartly. Usually, calories for the meal are exhausted with drinks and snack combinations. Eating a full dinner after having drinks and snacks is likely to tip over your caloric intake.
The bottomline is, either alter your work and eating schedules to suit your physiological needs and eat dinner early, or have a smaller dinner if you are eating it late. But you should absolutely not have a heavy dinner late in the night.