How Late Should You Eat?

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One of the most commonly asked questions I get about diet is, “How late can I eat the last meal of the day?”  Or, “Is it true that I shouldn’t eat anything after 7:00pm?”  Or 6:00pm or 9:00pm, and once I even heard 4:00pm!  The truth is that the best time for that final meal is an individual matter with a number of variables.  Not everyone goes to sleep at the same time.  For that matter, many people go to bed at different times from one evening to the next.  Just that fact alone makes it impractical for there to be one magical “best” time that suits everyone.

Other important factors are the size of the last meal and/or what it consists of.  The rule of not eating after a specific time comes from the old-school dieting practice of simply trying to eliminate calories.  Not eating served as a control mechanism for people who really didn’t know how to diet properly or would make bad choices with high calorie, high sugar foods (that late night ice cream for example).  But if you are following sound nutrition principles you can eat the right foods fairly close to bedtime and still be able to manage your weight effectively.

So, what are the “right foods” for evening dieting?  Generally speaking, if getting leaner is your concern, you don’t want to go to bed having just ingested a lot of calories.  Calories are best utilized earlier in the day if that’s when you are most active.  But that doesn’t mean you need to stop eating altogether as your day winds down.  Your body will be fasting for the period of time that you are sleeping so you need to have some nutrients in your system for the body to use for growth and repair from all the hard training you’ve been doing (you are training hard right?).  Plus, calories are not the enemy. We need enough of them to keep our metabolism active.  Always try to diet on as many calories as possible.

Typically, the last meal (or two) of the day is when you want to avoid consuming a lot of fast acting complex carbs and excessive saturated fats since you wont need or have the opportunity to utilize the energy they store (Unless you are an evening trainer). Having your normal serving of protein, with some fibrous carbs and an appropriate amount of healthy fats will give your body the nutrients it needs and keep your metabolism as active as possible. Also, watch out for the late-night sugary snacks and wine!

Eating a meal in the last 1-2 hours before retiring will pose no problem for most people.  Some people can still get lean eating even closer to bedtime while others may need a little longer (up to 3 hours) so some experimentation may be required (having a lower blood sugar level allows for greater release of growth hormone during the first few hours of REM sleep which can have an enhanced leaning out effect-but that’s another story). But the key is to maintain proper eating frequency throughout the entire day starting from within the first 30 minutes that you awake (no, you don’t need to train in a fasted state) up until the last 1-2 hours before you go to bed.  Put the brunt of your complex carbohydrates before your biggest periods of activity (like your workouts) and immediately after training for recovery purposes.  Space your protein intake relatively evenly throughout the day with maybe a little more in the evening to compensate for less calories due to decreased complex carbohydrate consumption.  (Note – there are diet strategies that purposely delay eating – such as intermittent fasting – again a discussion for another article :)  )

And make the last meal or two of the day consists of your target protein amount, fibrous carbs, and some healthy fats as needed.  If you structure your meals this way, the time of your last meal will determine itself and most importantly the results of your efforts will be forthcoming.

Photo: C. Redd

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