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The Skinny on Late-Night Eating

July 11, 2012

Conventional wisdom tells us that a 100-calorie apple still has 100 calories it's noon or midnight, but new research suggests that our bodies may not treat it that way.

Whether late-night eating can affect weight has long been debated by dieters and doctors. When after-dark snacking contributes to weight gain, it's often attributed to the unhealthy choices we make when we're tired - in other words, higher calories. However, a new study on time-restricted diets hypothesizes that our bodies actually need a large break from eating between dinner and breakfast to achieve optimal weight and health.

Researchers fed two groups of mice the same high-fat diet, but group one group was allowed to feed at will throughout the 24-hour day, while the other group was only given access to food during an 8-hour period. The mice in group two fasted for the other 16 hours of the day.

Despite consuming the same food, the mice that fasted did not develop obesity or inflammation and, in fact, displayed improved motor coordination. In contrast, the mice that ate round-the-clock developed high blood sugar, high cholesterol, fatty liver disease, and obesity.

"Every organ has a clock," said the study's lead author, Satchidananda Panda of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Could it be that we're actually throwing off our organs' rhythms by eating too often throughout the day and night?

It makes sense when you think about human history. As a diurnal species, people ate during the daylight hours and fasted at night. With the invention of electricity - and then television and computers - we now stay up far later into the evenings. If we keep snacking during the wee hours, our bodies don't have time to reset and may even develop metabolic exhaustion from constantly processing incoming fuel.

Along these same lines, John Douillard, an Integrative Nutrition teacher, has focused on the dangers of too-frequent eating. He suggests eating only three times per day to force your body to use up fuel stores and start burning fat. This will help your body clear toxins and stabilize blood sugar.

So if you’re up for it, try giving your body a long fast between dinner and breakfast and see how it makes you feel. Try 10-12 hours to start, say from 8pm at night until 7am the next morning. The research definitely isn't bullet-proof, but your body may thank you for the break!

Have you tried extended fasting between dinner and breakfast? What have you observed when you do?