Everything You Know About When to Eat Is Wrong

Street Snacks

Everyone eats breakfast every day, at least in the literal sense. The first meal, no matter what time it is consumed, breaks the fast, or period of abstention from eating that includes sleep. But conventionally, breakfast takes place in the morning, when a person first wakes up or soon thereafter. There is also an expectation that two more meals will follow, at noon and in the evening.

There are many different ways to skip breakfast. It might be missed because of time constraints, other priorities, or unavailability of food. A person can simply eradicate breakfast from the day, without trying to “make up for it” at lunch, and enjoy the satisfaction of taking in fewer calories. A person might skip breakfast but eat an early lunch, effectively combining the two meals. Restaurant brunch, as a social event, encourages overeating and overdrinking. These conditions rarely lead to weight loss even if the diner did, technically, skip breakfast.

After a show, club musicians eat huge piles of bacon, eggs, and toast in the middle of the night and then sleep until mid-afternoon. Night shift factory hands, nurses, roughnecks on oil rigs, and many other workers have such crazy schedules that an attempt to correlate their weight to their breakfast habits would be a very frustrating project.

Childhood Obesity News recently looked at the pros and cons of breakfast. As with so many other aspects of life, evidence leans in the direction of content over form. A meta-analysis of scientific materials concerning breakfast suggests that what we eat is more important than when we eat it.

Eating After Dark

The night eating question is so reminiscent of the breakfast debate, the two overlap. An article titled “The Obesity Era,” by David Berreby, illuminates many aspects of current scientific progress. He quotes an Ohio State University study in which one group of mice was kept in full light or dim light all the time. They never knew when it was night, and gained almost 50 percent more weight than the control mice who experienced normal light and darkness cycles. Berreby theorizes:

It’s possible that widespread electrification is promoting obesity by making humans eat at night, when our ancestors were asleep.

Registered Dietician Keri Gans finds that patients pursuing weight loss often ask how bad it is to eat after 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. or some other arbitrary deadline. Her feeling is that when people put off dining until late, they have more opportunity to work up an appetite or even to just start feeling peckish for no reason, and they are more prone to overeating. She suggests that a person should query herself according to the HALT acronym: “Am I Hungry? Am I Angry? Am I Lonely? Am I Tired?” There is a strong implication that emotional eating is more likely to get a foothold at night when we are too worn out to resist it.

If late-night munching is inevitable, Gans suggests a piece of fruit or a cup of berries; raw vegetables; a little low-fat pudding or yogurt; 3 cups of popcorn (air-popped, of course), or a sugar-free frozen fruit pop. She writes,

Eating late at night doesn’t cause you to gain weight, but eating too much late at night will…Going to bed on a full stomach for many people is a detriment and interferes with their beauty rest. And unfortunately if you don’t sleep well, there is an increased chance that in the morning when you are exhausted you will make poor breakfast decisions. But the best solution of all is to go to bed earlier—you can’t eat when you are sleeping.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Myths, Presumptions, and Facts about Obesity,” NEJM.org, 2013
Source: “The Obesity Era,” AeonMagazine, 06/19/13
Source: “Will Eating Late at Night Make You Fat?
Shape.com, 08/02/13
Image by Jakob Montrasio

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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