Meal timing can be a confusing subject.
For decades we believed that the best strategy for weight loss was to divide daily calories into 5-6 meals per day.
We were also told to eat a small and early dinner.
That advice began to change in the late 2000’s.
About 11 years ago I was one of the first bloggers to write about eating one meal per day for fat loss.
My blog post was about The Warrior Diet.
That diet involved eating one large meal per day as a massive dinner in the evening. Back then, the term “Intermittent Fasting” wasn’t even in our vocabulary.
I wrote that article in June of 2007 and according to Google the first mention of Intermittent Fasting happened that exact same month.
I can’t take credit for being the first blogger to use the actual term “intermittent fasting”.
Martin Berkhan of Lean Gains started his blog the same month as mine and beat me to it. He calls himself the godfather of intermittent fasting and I agree with him.
There were A LOT of skeptics back then.
People criticized the heck out of me for suggesting that it was possible or healthy to eat one meal per day.
Especially if that one meal was a large dinner.
I wrote about my struggles with helping intermittent fasting gain mainstream acceptance in this blog post.
I actually stopped using The Warrior Diet approach to intermittent fasting, because it focused on eating a massive dinner.
I found it felt magical at first, but didn’t work as well for me after 6-7 months.
I think I now know what the problem was.
- Dinners were at 7:30 because at that time I was working out at 5:30-6:30.
- All of my daily calories 2,500-3,000 were eaten in one meal.
- Bedtime was around 11:00
I believe that the combination of eating a large amount of food in one meal… and having that meal as a late dinner is not ideal for staying lean.
In this article, I will discuss in detail why I believe late dinners are NOT ideal if weight loss is your goal.
I believe there are benefits to sticking to a “normal” sized meal in the evening and eating that meal several hours before you go to bed.
You can still use Intermittent Fasting for weight loss.
Intermittent fasting began working again for me when I used Brad Pilon’s approach.
Instead of eating a full day’s worth of calories in one meal and doing that each day… Brad recommends eating a regular sized meal as your only meal (and only doing that 1-2 times per week).
So instead of a 2,500 calorie mega-meal…
Following Brad’s approach, I was eating an 800-1,000 calorie dinner as my only meal and simply doing that 2 times per week.
I believe this is a much better approach for effective intermittent fasting and is what I have recommended for several years.
This blog post isn’t even about intermittent fasting, I just wanted to cover that first, because I have a background in eating large dinners.
I really do enjoy eating the majority of my calories at night.
I’m now convinced that if that meal is too large or too close to bedtime, you impair your ability to lose fat.
Let’s explore this in more detail.
The 80’s Strategy of Eating Dinner Early
Here are a few strategies for weight loss we were taught in the 80s.
The Best Time to Eat Dinner (1980’s Tips)
- Eat 6 small meals per day to increase your metabolism.
- Make dinner your smallest meal.
- Don’t eat anything past 6 PM.
We know that tip #1 has been debunked.
Tip #2 and tip #3 have been “kind of” debunked.
This fitness thing can be really confusing at times. Certain studies will come to one conclusion and other studies will find the exact opposite conclusion to be true.
In the battle of dinner size and dinner timing, we get a stalemate.
Some studies show that dinner size & timing doesn’t matter and that it is more about overall daily calories… other studies challenge those findings.
Eating dinner early was a strategy countless people in the 80s used to get lean.
It worked well.
This still doesn’t mean that the fat loss was BECAUSE of eating an early dinner.
If you don’t eat past 6 pm that could simply be a way to restrict calories and achieve a calorie deficit. All of the weight loss could be from that deficit and have nothing to do with when a person was eating dinner.
I could absolutely see how eating an early dinner would result in weight loss simply from calorie restriction.
I do think going to sleep on a full stomach is not an ideal strategy when it comes to weight loss.
Eating Late at Night Can Disrupt Sleep
I want to start off this section by stating, I don’t believe you need to go to bed starving.
Being incredibly hungry can disrupt sleeping as much as being stuffed. There is a happy medium.
First, let’s talk about how eating late at night messes with sleep.
A study in 2011 found the timing of food intake has a significant effect on sleep patterns.
“We conclude that food intake during the nocturnal period is correlated with negative effects on the sleep quality of healthy individuals. Indeed, food intake near the sleeping period (dinner and late night snack) was negatively associated with sleep quality variables.”
This study found that late night eating affected REM sleep for both men and women as well as sleep latency (time it takes to fall asleep).
Late night eating also affected women quite a bit more than men.
“These results indicate that a higher food intake close to the sleeping period is associated with negative aspects of sleep patterns in healthy individuals, especially in women. Studies have shown pronounced gender differences in the occurrence of sleep disorders.”
In this study, the late night dinner took place 30 to 60 minutes before going to bed.
What is the significance of poor sleep?
Poor sleep affects fat loss in a few ways.
Here’s the first.
Poor Sleep Affects Hormones That Regulate Hunger and Satiety
The hormones ghrelin and leptin play a key role in when it comes to your body weight and metabolism.
Grehlin is considered the “hunger” hormone, because it stimulates the appetite, increases food intake and promotes fat storage. Leptin is often referred to as the “satiety hormone” or “starvation hormone”. Low levels signal starvation and the need for a bigger appetite.
When leptin levels dip low, you will be driven to eat. When ghrelin levels increase, you will become hungry.
Low leptin and high ghrelin is a bad combo if fat loss is your goal.
This is exactly what happens when sleep is disrupted.
Here is a study showing the effects of this.
“Participants with short sleep had reduced leptin and elevated ghrelin. These differences in leptin and ghrelin are likely to increase appetite, possibly explaining the increased BMI observed with short sleep duration. In Western societies, where chronic sleep restriction is common and food is widely available, changes in appetite regulatory hormones with sleep curtailment may contribute to obesity.”
This study was an extreme example.
They compared people sleeping an average of 5 hours per night vs people sleeping an average of 8 hours per night.
They found that those who averaged 5 hours of sleep per night had 16% lower leptin and 15% more ghrelin than those who slept for 8 hours each night.
I doubt that eating a large dinner close to bedtime would affect hormones to that extent if people get enough sleep.
The thing about weight loss or weight gain though is that it is small incremental things over a long period of time that results in becoming overweight or lean.
Eating a late dinner could possibly make it tougher to follow your diet the next day (by affecting sleep, leptin and ghrelin).
Over time this could cause weight gain or at least make it tough to lose weight.
What You Eat and How Much You Eat for Dinner Plays a Role Too
Another strategy from the 80’s was to eat higher carbs and higher calories during the day and mainly fibrous carbs and lean protein for dinner.
There was even a saying about meal size:
“Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.”
In my opinion, dinner is the ideal time to make a meal focused on getting plenty of fresh vegetables.
Eating things like salads and soups for dinner (vegetable-based meals) are killer for weight loss.
I don’t think you have to go too extreme.
A good rule of thumb would be, the more fats or more starchy carb calories you have for dinner… the earlier you should attempt to eat that dinner.
I would also say…
The larger your dinner is, the earlier you should attempt to eat that dinner.
This strategy works for just about any diet, keto, low fat, Mediterranean, Whole 30, paleo, etc.
I eat a high carb low-fat diet and simply do my best to make my dinner with tons of vegetables and have a salad, etc.
For years I got super lean eating a chicken breast salad as my final meal at night.
If fat loss is your goal I would recommend building your dinner around fibrous carbs.
Here’s a partial list of fibrous carbs:
We all probably need to eat more vegetables to get a wide variety of vitamins and minerals as well as fiber.
Another benefit is these foods are filling and are low in calories.
I don’t think you have to go extreme and only eat fibrous carbs as your dinner… or only fibrous carbs and chicken breasts.
I recommend that if your meal is high fat or high in starchy carbs you would do best to make that an early dinner (if weight loss is your goal).
It is also about how big (or small) your dinner is as well.
If you are eating 5 meals per day and your final meal is a small 500-600 calorie dinner, it probably won’t matter as much as eating a 2,000 calorie dinner.
I would imagine a 500 calorie dinner would digest quickly.
An Interesting Study About Eating Dinner 4 Hours Before Bed Time
In my research, I did stumble upon a study which examined eating a high Glycemic Index dinner (starchy carbs like rice, potatoes, pasta).
This study found that eating a high starchy carb meal 4 hours before bed, shortened the time it took to fall asleep.
They didn’t find the same benefit with eating a high GI meal one hour before bed.
This was a small study, so I wouldn’t put too much weight on it… but it could give a target to aim for when it comes to dinner, especially if you follow a high carb diet.
Maybe aim to have your dinner 4 hours before bed if it contains a lot of starchy carbs (especially if it is large).
This study also didn’t examine sleep quality as covered in the previous study.
If the meal isn’t massive, I would expect that by the time 4 hours passes by you are probably fine in this regard.
As I mentioned before, Women are especially sensitive to dinner timing and sleep quality.
*This could be part of the reason The Warrior Diet wasn’t as popular among women.
Eat Dinner Early to Increase Growth Hormone Release at Night
It is estimated that as much as 75 percent of your GH is released at night during sleep.
Growth hormone has quite a few benefits which include maintaining muscle and burning fat.
For maximum GH release, it is suggested that you want stable insulin levels by the time you go to bed. Eating a low glycemic index type meal that isn’t massive 2-3 hours before bed should be fine.
Alternatively, you could eat a larger dinner with carbs or fat about 4 hours before going to bed.
Be cautious about too much fat, because it slows the digestion. If you eat steak for dinner ideally eat it about 4 hours before going to bed.
You can’t blindly follow the 4-hour suggestion.
We have an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet about 1 mile from my house. I’m sure it would be no problem to eat a 5,000 calorie meal at this place.
Even if it was 5 hours before bed, I’m guessing my sleep will be disturbed.
If weight loss is a goal, buffets aren’t the best strategy anyway.
Those are more of a special occasion type of thing.
Speaking about buffets…
The best one in Seattle, in my opinion, is at Palisade restaurant.
Palisade is located in Elliott Bay Marina so you can pull your boat into the marina and enjoy an incredible Sunday brunch and a few mimosas.
*If you don’t know what Yacht Bod means, I talked about it most recently in this blog post.
Note: Palisade did not pay me to write this, but I won’t turn down a free Sunday brunch if they see this article and offer it to me. The food is amazing!
What About Alcohol With Dinner Late at Night?
People who read my blog regularly know I am a big fan of beer. I don’t go nutty (most of the time) and normally like to have just 1-2 beers with dinner.
If someone is focused on getting lean QUICKLY, I recommend limiting alcohol. Alcohol almost always slows down fat loss to some extent.
I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t.
For rapid fat loss, the less alcohol the better.
If you are fine with a slower rate of fat loss you can have a drink or two in the evenings.
If you want to have alcohol, I’d recommend having your last drink 4 hours before bedtime.
This depends on how big your dinner is and how big your drink is.
If your dinner is 4 sushi rolls and you are drinking a light beer, you could probably get away with having that dinner 2 hours before bed.
Eating Dinner Early With Intermittent Fasting or Time Restricted Eating
Eating dinner early has fat loss benefits.
Restricting your feeding window has health benefits which I wrote about in this article.
Here’s a possible strategy:
If you have an eating window of 8 hours, as Martin Berkhan of Lean Gains recommends, I simply would adjust the time so dinner ended about 4 hours before bed.
If you go to bed at 10 PM?
Your 8 hour eating window would be from 10 AM to 6 PM.
If your dinner is small or mainly fibrous carbs, you could test an eating window of 11 AM to 7 PM.
This isn’t exact, and part of this depends on when your workout.
If you hit the gym from 6:30 – 7:30, you may not be able to eat until 8:00 PM. If this is the case, your body will be ready to absorb a lot of the nutirients from that meal anyway. By the time you went to bed at 10 PM, you would probably be fine.
For this post workout meal…
You will want to keep fat to a minimum since fat slows that rate at which food is digested.
This is especially important if you train late in the evening.
I also want to quickly mention a study:
A Recent Study Finds that Eating Dinner Earlier Could Reduce Risk of Cancer
I only want to devote a small section to this study.
They found that people who ate their evening meal before 9:00 p.m. or at least 2 hours before going to bed had around 20 percent less risk of breast or prostate cancer than those who ate after 10:00 p.m. or went to bed soon after eating.
Here’s a link to an article about that study.
The findings of this study need to be replicated before we know for sure if early dinners really affect cancer rates.
It could be a correlation and not a cause.
When is the Best Time to Eat Dinner?
If I had to choose a time, I’d say your best bet for fat loss is to eat your dinner 4 hours before bedtime. This isn’t an absolute and isn’t always practical, but just one way to make fat loss a little easier.
I believe for maximum fat loss going to bed slightly hungry is ideal.
Don’t push this…
If you are famished you aren’t going to be able to fall asleep.
If this is the case, I would aim for a small snack.
I wouldn’t sweat the details of this snack too much. Some people like to get overly obsessed with this stuff.
This leads me to my final point.
Don’t get obsessed with trying to hit an exact or a best time to eat dinner.
Not feeling stuffed when you go to sleep is a step in the right direction.
Being just slightly hungry is even better.
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