With all of the health messages available in society today, it sounds like eating for optimal health doesn’t just depend on what you’re eating but also when you eat.
As such, you may be wondering if there’s a best time to eat dinner, especially if you’re trying to lose weight or if you have any other health considerations.
This article examines whether there’s an ideal time to eat dinner.
Research, such as a small 2016 study, shows that many adults have erratic eating patterns (
More than half of the 156 people in the study ate during a long window of 15 hours or more in an average day. Some people may have stopped eating at 4 p.m., while others may have relied on snack foods well into the night (
So, when it comes to the question of the ideal time to eat dinner, the answer may depend on your personal health-related goals or medical conditions.
For weight loss
One of the most common approaches to weight loss is to reduce the total number of calories you’re eating. Related to that, meal timing may be important in reaching your goals.
Some studies suggest you should eat your last meal before your body starts releasing melatonin and preparing for sleep.
One 2017 study found that eating later in the evening, when your brain has started preparing for sleep, is associated with increased body fat. This was independent of factors like the amount or type of food eaten or activity level (
Other studies agree, concluding that eating later may disrupt your body’s natural circadian rhythm. This, in turn, may increase the risk of weight gain and associated health problems. This has often been seen in shift workers who have to eat at nontraditional times (
Moreover, research has found that eating later into the evening is associated with a greater total daily calorie intake (
In one older 2013 study, women with overweight and obesity ate a diet intended for weight loss for 3 months.
The study found that even though everyone had the same daily calorie intake overall, women who ate the most calories at breakfast lost 2.5 times more weight than those who ate the most at dinner (
That being said, if you get hungry between dinner and bedtime, choosing healthy snacks can still support your weight loss goals.
For weight loss, timing your dinner to occur before the sun goes down may be most beneficial, so it won’t disrupt your circadian rhythm. But keep in mind that healthy snacks can still have a place if you find yourself hungry later on.
For acid reflux
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a digestive condition in which stomach acid flows backward into the esophagus, causing a burning sensation.
It’s most often caused by a weak lower esophageal sphincter and can be exacerbated by stress, certain foods, meal composition and timing, and other factors depending on the person (
One older study from 2005 concluded that people with GERD should eat their last meal of the day no fewer than 3 hours before laying down for bedtime (
This allows your body time to fully digest your last meal, reducing the risk for acid reflux to occur at night.
For example, if you have GERD and normally go to bed around 10:00 p.m., it’s a good idea to finish dinner by 7:00 p.m.
Regardless of your health goals, there are a few things to keep in mind regarding meal timing.
At the end of the day, weight management primarily depends on the total amount of calories you’ve consumed. Eating more calories than you need will eventually result in unwanted weight gain.
What’s more, many surveys and studies have shown that late-night eating is linked to a higher likelihood of choosing unhealthy foods.
Many nighttime snacks are highly processed and contain large amounts of added sugar or fat, making them calorie-dense and nutrient-poor (
Furthermore, nighttime snacks are often eaten in front of the television or computer screen, which may lead to mindless eating. This is when you may end up consuming more calories than you actually want to, simply because you’re distracted.
If these are of concern, you may want to practice setting an end time for your last meal of the day, ensuring you meet all of your calorie and nutrient needs before then.
Whether you want to lose weight or prevent acid reflux and other potential health issues, it’s best to eat dinner before the sun goes down. This will ideally give your body a few hours to digest before bedtime.
For the average healthy person, it appears that it’s best not to get in the habit of regularly consuming your largest meal of the day right before you lay down for bed.
- knowing how to tell when you’re truly hungry
- eating an appropriate portion
- being able to stop eating when you’re comfortably full
These are always good tips to keep in mind when it comes to meal schedules.
Studies suggest that even if you have to eat dinner late sometimes, the benefits of fueling your mind and body outweigh the potential downsides of skipping the last meal of the day (
Keep in mind that choosing nutritious foods continues to be critical for optimal health, including management of the conditions listed above, in addition to consideration of dinner timing.
It appears that avoiding a heavy, late-night dinner is beneficial for the general population. However, practicing mindfulness and choosing nutritious foods is equally important, even if a late dinner occurs sometimes.
The ideal time to eat dinner appears to align with your circadian rhythm and allow your body time to adequately digest food before laying down for sleep.
This typically means eating dinner at least 2 to 3 hours before bedtime. It may be especially helpful for people who want to:
- lose weight
- prevent overeating
- prevent acid reflux at night
That said, if you can’t keep a regular dinner schedule, it’s generally better to practice mindfulness and eat a nutritious late-night dinner than to skip your last meal of the day altogether.