Whether you get home from work late or stay out at a restaurant with friends talking and laughing over your favorite dishes—eating a late dinner is often part of life. Juggling schedules, planning your meals, buying groceries, and cooking can get chaotic. Late dinners are also a cherished tradition for some cultures. Still, there’s a lot of talk about the “right” time to eat. Have you ever wondered if eating a late dinner is unwise? If so, you’re not alone. Below, experts break down how eating a late dinner impacts digestion. The consensus? It can impact your digestion and metabolic processes, but a late dinner is better than no dinner.
According to a 2020 article published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, the time between your dinner and your bedtime is what matters when it comes to a late dinner. Another 2020 study from the same journal found that when participants went to bed right after a late mean, they were more likely to exhibit results of altered plasma cortisol levels, increased glucose intolerance, and changes in fat utilization. However, researchers did mention that factors like gender, disability, race, socioeconomic status, and fitness level need to be studied more closely to better understand how eating late dinners impacts health.
Eating a late dinner right before bed also isn’t ideal for a good night’s sleep. Eating requires us to utilize many metabolic processes and energy to help digestion, says Shilpi Agarwal, MD, board-certified family medicine physician and frontline COVID-19 responder at Georgetown University Hospital. Eating late and going to sleep right after can contribute to heartburn and indigestion. It can also slow your metabolism or alter your body’s ability to turn food into energy and use up fatty acids.
This doesn’t mean you should go to bed on an empty stomach, though, because that is not ideal for your body either, says Tiana Glover, RD, registered dietitian specializing in binge eating disorder and founder of Taste with Tia. When asked if it’s better to eat dinner late or not at all, all experts confirm that eating is more important. “If you skip dinner, you’ll find that your body will want to make up for lost calories the next day. This could potentially lead to stronger cravings and even binge eating,” Glover says, adding that your body needs nutrients like protein, fat, fiber, and sugar throughout the day. Eating a late dinner here and there may disrupt your sleep or alter some bodily processes, but a late dinner is by far better than no dinner.
Glover adds that sometimes diet culture can influence people to believe hard-and-fast rules like, “you should never eat after 7 pm.” The truth is that there’s a lot of a grey area when it comes to eating. Many factors contribute to your eating schedule, and things like socializing, finances, working, shopping, cooking, and caretaking all impact how you eat. Balance is a huge aspect of navigating an eating schedule, Glover says.
If you’re wondering what to prioritize or avoid when it comes to a late dinner, Dr. Agarwal recommends that a high fiber, lean protein meal, might generally be better than high sugar, alcohol, carbohydrates, or foods high in fat. This is because your body digests differently at night, which can potentially cause changes in insulin function and fat storage over time. This doesn’t mean you can’t have any of those things, Glover says. Enjoying your favorite food is an important part of a balanced diet as well.
Digestion is complex, but your body will digest your food whether you eat it at 6 pm or 10 pm, Glover says. So should you pack up your dinner the next time you’re out with friends? Absolutely not, Glover says. Savoring food in different environments is an important part of your health and wellbeing. If anything, this might be a good excuse to stay up a bit later after your nighttime dinner.
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