Sometimes when I talk with people who struggle with their weight, they’ll tell me that the reason they can’t lose weight is because they eat too much at night. “I eat,” they’ll say, “and then I just sit around and I don’t burn it off—that’s my problem.” While intuitively this might make sense, it doesn’t really work this way. Taking in too many calories at any time of the day is going to lead to weight gain.
The body just doesn’t micromanage calories that carefully. And here’s why: we evolved under conditions of food scarcity. In order to survive, we had to be able to store extra calories if we overate—whenever that might be—and then be able to call them up when we needed them. Our ancestors foraged for food all day long, and they needed to store (or use) all the calories they could get—whether they were eaten at dawn or around the fire at night.
The same thing is true for us today. It doesn’t matter if you eat your extra calories before the sun goes down or after. Either way, your fat cells are more than happy to hang on to them for you to use later.
People probably think this way because they notice that they lose weight when they stop eating so much at night, or set some arbitrary rule, like “I won’t eat after 7 p.m.” But it’s not the time of day that matters. If you were to eat your usual post-7 p.m. calories at 3 p.m. instead, you wouldn’t burn them off any faster.
A lot of people who overeat do the majority of their gorging late in the day and well into the evening. So when they stop eating at 7 PM, they cut out hundreds of calories that ordinarily would have been consumed. They’re losing weight not because they stopped eating after a certain time; they’re losing weight because, well, they stopped eating.
One of the main reasons people overeat at night is, in fact, because they haven’t adequately fueled themselves during the day. Lots of people try to power through the day on very little food, then by the time they hit the door at night they’re starving. And it’s easy to justify a bedtime binge if you tell yourself that you’ve “hardly eaten all day.”
There’s an old saying that you should eat ‘breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.’ It’s still great advice, and I often encourage people to diet at night. Start the day with a healthy, high protein breakfast (like a protein shake, a high protein cereal with milk and fruit, yogurt with fruit, or a veggie omelet), have a healthy lunch with plenty of protein and veggies, and then have a large snack—almost like another meal—in the middle of the afternoon, at around 3 or 4 o’clock. Then you won’t be starving at dinner, and you can then get by with something light—like a small salad with a little protein in it or a bowl of soup.