• “It’s very individual. It totally varies. There’s no one size fits all answer to when you should eat dinner.” (Digital Vision/Getty Images)Source: Digital Vision/Getty Images
We ask an expert for the truth on whether eating dinner later at night, around 9-11pm as they do in Spain and some South American countries, can make you put on weight.
By
Yasmin Noone

17 Oct 2018 - 2:46 PM  UPDATED 17 Oct 2018 - 5:23 PM

A few months ago, I did an Argentinean cooking course in the Buenos Aires home of a local part-time psychologist and cook.

As we pinched and sealed our handmade empanadas and discussed the cultural differences that united us, the teacher went on to discuss her favourite traditional dinnertime dishes. It was then that we stumbled across a cultural point that divided us.

The cook mentioned she ate her evening meal after 9pm: a time that was typically marked for dinner in her country, but branded as unusually late to eat in Australia for fear it could lead to weight gain.

She said she had heard of this weight gain myth before and reminded me that in Spain and many countries across South America, millions of people have eaten dinner between 9-11pm for years.

Is it okay to eat dinner ‘late’ every night as they do in Spain and Argentina – around 9-11pm – or should we all be eating dinner around 6pm if we want to keep the kilos off?

Her final conclusion on the international dinnertime dilemma was simple and direct: ‘there’s no problem with eating late. You’ve been led to believe an Anglo-centric version of health, where when you eat is more important than what you eat. The late timing of your dinner does not matter to your waistline – it doesn’t matter if you are Australian or Argentinean’.

She sounded convincing but was she right? Is it okay to eat dinner ‘late’ every night as they do in Spain and Argentina – around 9-11pm – or should we all be eating dinner around 6pm if we want to keep the kilos off?

What does the expert say?

Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, Lauren McGuckin, weighs into the discussion, explaining that there's no need to eat dinner at the typical Australian 'dinner time' in order to prevent weight gain.

“It’s very individual. It totally varies. There’s no one size fits all answer to when you should eat dinner.”

Despite the prevalence of a lot of theories about when the best time to eat dinner is, McGuckin says there’s “actually no global or general consensus regarding what’s right or wrong about when one eats”.

“We are focusing on when some Spanish or South American people have their meals and not on what they are eating,” McGuckin says. “Health and weight loss is not solely going to fall on one factor – when you eat your food.

“It’s very individual. It totally varies. There’s no one size fits all answer to when you should eat dinner.”

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She admits that eating a heavy meal before bed may make you feel uncomfortable and reduce your likelihood of falling asleep faster or the quality of your sleep.

“So if you are going to have dinner later than 6 or 7pm, perhaps have a dinner that’s a little lighter [if you want to be able to fall asleep easily]. If this is an issue for you, perhaps have your biggest meal of the day at breakfast or lunch.”

McGuckin adds that the ‘no carbs after 5pm’ eating pattern for weight loss is also based on a myth. “It’s thought that because you are more sedentary in the evenings, you won’t utilise the carbohydrates [you consume] because your body stores it as fat”.

“But that’s not true. If people are losing weight when they stop eating carbs after 5pm, it might be because they have taken energy out of their diet.

“It doesn’t matter when you consume your calories during the day. It’s a matter of how much you have and the nutritional quality of the food you have overall. Your body will utilise a certain amount of energy throughout the day. If you are consuming more than you require, it could result in weight gain.”

However, there is a caveat. If you have diabetes, she says, you may benefit from having a low-carb, light meal for dinner. “If they have a larger, carbohydrates-filled meal before bed it’s not the best idea especially if they are type one diabetic who needs to manage their insulin level.” 

“It doesn’t matter when you consume your calories during the day. It’s a matter of how much you have and the nutritional quality of the food you have overall."

The subject of calories and ‘when’ you eat is controversial - not everyone agrees that a late dinner makes no difference to your health or weight. 

Research from 2013, conducted on 420 obese individuals following a 20-week weight loss treatment plan revealed that eating late may influence weight loss success.

A study released earlier this year looked at participants with obesity, those with and without binge eating disorder, and how eating late in the day can affect appetite. It showed that the afternoon/evening could be a high-risk period for overeating, particularly when paired with stress exposure.

A 2003 study on animals in the US shows that the time you eat has no impact on the way your body processes food and on overall weight loss or gain. 

“What matters, from a weight perspective, is what you are putting into your body and how much you are eating, not when you eat,” McGuckin stresses. “Make sure it is nutritionally balanced rather than pointing the finger at carbs or fats.”

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