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Eating Late At Night – How Unhealthy Is It Really?

Eating late at night is a health issue that is also the subject of controversial scientific debate. What is the current study situation and what do hormone balance and weight have to do with eating late at night?

For many people, eating late at night has something to do with their own personal lifestyle. We all know the saying “Eat breakfast like an emperor, lunch like a king and dinner like a beggar”. But that doesn’t work for everyone and often doesn’t fit in with many people’s everyday lives and jobs. In addition, having dinner with friends or cooking and then eating with the whole family is a popular and important social activity. Regardless of why people prefer to dine out in the evening, one fact remains: Many people eat the majority of their daily food intake in the evening.

Does eating late at night make you fat and sick?

According to numerous studies, eating late at night is bad for your health and your weight. It has been shown, for example, that symptoms such as heartburn and reflux verschlimmern can increase if you have eaten a large meal three hours before going to bed. Sleep disorders can also be promoted if the last meal was only one to three hours ago.

An American study from 2019 found that people who ate around 100 calories more than others in the two hours before going to bed had an 80 percent higher risk of obesity. Similar study results come from Sweden and Japan. An English study examined blood sugar and fat levels in people who regularly snack after 9 pm. It showed that they had an increased risk of diabetes.

Nevertheless, this does not prove that eating late at night always ends up on your hips. Factors such as genetics, exercise and sleep must also be taken into account. However, the increasing evidence that the timing of food intake can have a direct impact on health should not be ignored. Hormones appear to play a major role in this. Eating late seems to throw them off kilter.

Hormones are going crazy

This is shown by a study carried out on 16 overweight or obese male and female adults.They were closely monitored in a laboratory for 12 days in terms of meals, exercise and sleep. They all followed different eating schedules for six days: one group ate breakfast shortly after waking up, ate at lunchtime and then in the early evening. The other group ate the same amount of calories and nutrients, but the timing of food intake was shifted by four hours. They did not eat their evening meal until 9 pm. After six days, the groups switched regimens.

The result was that the group that ate later was hungrier. Their leptin levels – the hormone that signals satiety to the body – were lower during the day, while their ghrelin levels, which signals hunger, were higher. The late eaters also burned fewer calories with the same level of activity.

If you eat late at night, you not only burn less fat. If your evening meal contains mainly carbohydrates, this can also cause your blood sugar to rise more than during the day. The reason for this could be that the sleep hormone melatonin, which the body releases at night, reduces insulin secretion – and insulin regulates blood sugar levels.

Light meals in the evening

As far as body weight is concerned, the German Nutrition Society (DGE -Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung) has come to the conclusion that the amount of energy consumed throughout the day is still decisive for body weight. “Nevertheless, for health reasons, it can make sense to eat earlier and avoid midnight snacks or only eat light meals in the evening or at night,” the AOK informs its members.

The website also states: “It makes sense to eat several meals regularly throughout the day. According to a study overview, this can be more beneficial in terms of energy balance than eating meals irregularly and infrequently. Eating two to three main meals throughout the day appears to be beneficial. However, more research is needed to make a clear recommendation.”

“A balanced meal with a good mix of protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates that fills you up well, in a relaxed atmosphere, also keeps blood sugar levels stable. Snacks in front of the TV, on the other hand, are often full of carbohydrates combined with unhealthy fats,” is the Austrian dietician Yasmin Eder’s recommendation.

Southerners are late eaters

This raises the question of why obesity is not such a big issue in countries such as Italy and Spain, even though southerners like to eat late and have a big dinner. There is no exact explanation, but it is reasonable to assume that it is a mixture of cultural, genetic and lifestyle factors. If you observe the southern population at dinner, it takes place at a relaxed pace with longer breaks. So they eat less. In addition, the Mediterranean diet consists of lighter, more nutritious foods. However, it is also possible that people have genetically adapted their eating habits so that they can process late meals better.

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