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What Time Should You Eat Dinner?


Research, such as a small 2016 study, shows that many adults have erratic eating patterns (1).

More than half of the 156 people in the study ate during a long window of 15 hours or more in an average day. Some people may have stopped eating at 4 p.m., while others may have relied on snack foods well into the night (1).

So, when it comes to the question of the ideal time to eat dinner, the answer may depend on your personal health-related goals or medical conditions.

For weight loss

One of the most common approaches to weight loss is to reduce the total number of calories you’re eating. Related to that, meal timing may be important in reaching your goals.

Some studies suggest you should eat your last meal before your body starts releasing melatonin and preparing for sleep.

Your brain begins releasing melatonin at night in response to normal light and dark hours of the day. This is your circadian rhythm, which is closely linked to your metabolism (2, 3).

One 2017 study found that eating later in the evening, when your brain has started preparing for sleep, is associated with increased body fat. This was independent of factors like the amount or type of food eaten or activity level (4).

Other studies agree, concluding that eating later may disrupt your body’s natural circadian rhythm. This, in turn, may increase the risk of weight gain and associated health problems. This has often been seen in shift workers who have to eat at nontraditional times (5, 6, 7).

Moreover, research has found that eating later into the evening is associated with a greater total daily calorie intake (8).

In one older 2013 study, women with overweight and obesity ate a diet intended for weight loss for 3 months.

The study found that even though everyone had the same daily calorie intake overall, women who ate the most calories at breakfast lost 2.5 times more weight than those who ate the most at dinner (9).

That being said, if you get hungry between dinner and bedtime, choosing healthy snacks can still support your weight loss goals.

For weight loss, timing your dinner to occur before the sun goes down may be most beneficial, so it won’t disrupt your circadian rhythm. But keep in mind that healthy snacks can still have a place if you find yourself hungry later on.

For acid reflux

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a digestive condition in which stomach acid flows backward into the esophagus, causing a burning sensation.

It’s most often caused by a weak lower esophageal sphincter and can be exacerbated by stress, certain foods, meal composition and timing, and other factors depending on the person (10).

One older study from 2005 concluded that people with GERD should eat their last meal of the day no fewer than 3 hours before laying down for bedtime (11).

This allows your body time to fully digest your last meal, reducing the risk for acid reflux to occur at night.

For example, if you have GERD and normally go to bed around 10:00 p.m., it’s a good idea to finish dinner by 7:00 p.m.

In general

Regardless of your health goals, there are a few things to keep in mind regarding meal timing.

At the end of the day, weight management primarily depends on the total amount of calories you’ve consumed. Eating more calories than you need will eventually result in unwanted weight gain.

What’s more, many surveys and studies have shown that late-night eating is linked to a higher likelihood of choosing unhealthy foods.

Many nighttime snacks are highly processed and contain large amounts of added sugar or fat, making them calorie-dense and nutrient-poor (12).

Furthermore, nighttime snacks are often eaten in front of the television or computer screen, which may lead to mindless eating. This is when you may end up consuming more calories than you actually want to, simply because you’re distracted.

Regularly overeating less healthy foods into the night may result in unwanted weight gain and other health issues, like disrupted sleep or indigestion (13, 14, 15, 16).

If these are of concern, you may want to practice setting an end time for your last meal of the day, ensuring you meet all of your calorie and nutrient needs before then.

SUMMARY

Whether you want to lose weight or prevent acid reflux and other potential health issues, it’s best to eat dinner around the time when the sun goes down. This will ideally give your body a few hours to digest before bedtime.

For the average healthy person, it appears that it’s best not to get in the habit of regularly consuming your largest meal of the day right before you lay down for bed.

Generally speaking, learning how to practice mindfulness with food is the most useful strategy when determining the best time to eat dinner or any meal (17).

This involves:

  • knowing how to tell when you’re truly hungry
  • eating an appropriate portion
  • being able to stop eating when you’re comfortably full

These are always good tips to keep in mind when it comes to meal schedules.

Studies suggest that even if you have to eat dinner late sometimes, the benefits of fueling your mind and body outweigh the potential downsides of skipping the last meal of the day (18).

Keep in mind that choosing nutritious foods continues to be critical for optimal health, including management of the conditions listed above, in addition to consideration of dinner timing.

SUMMARY

It appears that avoiding a heavy, late-night dinner is beneficial for the general population. However, practicing mindfulness and choosing nutritious foods is equally important, even if a late dinner occurs sometimes.



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