“Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.”
This quote from Adelle Davis has echoed like a nutritional mantra for the last sixty-eight years. Simply stated, full of common sense, Davis crafted the e=mc2 of her industry.
Except she was not talking about the size of the meals. Davis, a mid-century, Berkeley-trained dietician whose books on nutrition sold over ten million copies, was referring to protein totals for those meals — she believed a large dose of morning protein had a positive impact on blood sugar totals that offset fatigue later in the day.
Despite its widespread public misinterpretation, Davis’ aphorism not only became cultural gospel, but it also sparked scientific debate and research.
So, is it true? Does a large, late evening dinner have a negative impact on health? Do those calories all turn to flab? Should we avoid going to bed on a full stomach?
The best answer, the same answer science comes up with so often when studying human behavior, is — it depends on who you ask.
A 2020 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found late dinners are associated with weight gain and high blood sugar levels. The author of the study, Dr. Jonathan Jen, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, told Health Day News, it is not just what you eat that can lead to weight gain. The timing is crucial: you can consume the same number of calories over a given 24-hour period, but your metabolism processes the intake differently depending on the time you do the eating. Fat burns approximately 10% slower after a late meal.
Dr. Jen was careful to point out that late night meals affect people differently, this is not a one-size fits all. It may add pounds to some, while others are not fazed by it.
“Instead of getting fixated on what time is late or what time it is on the clock to start or stop eating, we need to recognize that it is very dependent on the individual,” Dr. Jen said.
What is confounding is that research is split on these matters. There is a growing body of work which suggests that Dr. Jen’s concerns about the timing of calorie intake are credible — however, there is also empirical data indicating total food intake, irrespective of the hour of the day, determines weight gain or loss.
For example, the findings of an impressive, well controlled experiment conducted at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, posited that nighttime eating can increase weight, insulin, and cholesterol levels. It can also negatively impact the metabolism and hormonal markers related to heart disease and diabetes.
However, there is the other prevalent viewpoint. It is expressed in a paper written by Amber Kinsey, PhD, and Michael J. Ormsbee, PhD. The authors discuss the “old and new perspectives” on late night food consumption.
They explain the “old” view held that limiting or avoiding food before bedtime was considered positive in terms of weight control and general health considerations. The “new” view: eating late at night is mitigated if the food choice is small and nutrient dense as opposed to large meals rich in fat content.
Clearly, we need more research to sharpen our perception of how people react to calories consumed at different times of the day. As Dr. Jen underscored, this matrix is nuanced; science must measure individual differences. In an American society where two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese and cardiovascular disease is claiming a life every half minute, understanding of these issues is essential.
It is also important to note there are certain conditions which are indisputably aggravated by late night eating — symptoms of acid reflux, for example, can definitely be triggered by untimely, imprudent consumption.
Acid reflux is a virtual epidemic in this country: 30 to 40 percent of us struggle with this painful condition. Some $15 to $20 billion is spent yearly to medicate it and, oftentimes, these medications are not completely effective. Dietary and lifestyle changes must also occur.
Writing in The New York Times, specialist Dr. Jamie A. Koufman noted that one of the single most important lifestyle interventions in treating reflux is to eliminate late eating. She said that reflux is the result of acid spilling out of the stomach and that lying down with a full stomach makes reflux much more likely.
In addition to traditional medical treatment, Dr. Koufman recommends to her patients to stop eating at least three hours before bedtime. Her treatment regime also includes well-planned meals consisting of healthy food and beverage options.
Dr. Koufman clearly knows what she is talking about: given the debate about late night eating, it is always best to follow the advice of your medical professional. Research will eventually sort itself out.