Eliminating food after 6:00 p.m. is one way to restrict the total number of calories you consume each day -- which is a good weight loss strategy, but it won't magically help you lose weight. Eating small, nutrient-rich snacks after 6:00 p.m. may even have some benefits, such as boosting muscle protein synthesis. In the end, the time of day you eat -- even the number of meals and the snacks you consume -- aren't as important for weight loss as consuming fewer calories than you burn.
The Impact of Eating After 6:00 P.M.
The amount of weight you lose is influenced by several variables, but time of day isn't one of them. Losing weight at a sustainable pace takes many days of creating an energy deficit that gradually depletes stored fat. The calories you eat over several days or a week are balanced against the number of calories burned -- and over time -- this causes either an increase or a decrease in stored fat. The time of day you consume calories doesn't affect the long-term process one way or the other -- so if you stop eating at 6:00 p.m., you're not guaranteed to lose weight. The lack of calories at night won't help you drop pounds -- if you consume more calories than your body needs during the day.
Some evidence suggests that eating at night may have positive metabolic benefits. One study verified that protein consumed near bedtime is fully digested and boosts muscle-protein synthesis while you sleep, according to a report in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise in 2012. Consuming a caloric beverage before going to sleep may boost metabolism and may burn more calories overnight, concluded a review published in Nutrients in April 2015. A healthy snack close to bedtime may help you sleep better by keeping your blood sugar steady.
Advice for Eating After 6:00 P.M.
Even though eating after 6:00 p.m. doesn't directly affect weight loss, late-night snacking often leads to overeating, according to the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. If you tend to overeat at night -- or if eating after 6:00 p.m. adds calories that exceed your daily goal -- cutting out the nighttime snack and switching to a healthy afternoon snack may help you reduce the caloric intake you need to lose weight. People who eat in the evening should limit their snack to 200 calories or less, avoid mixed meals and focus on one macronutrient, according to the report in Nutrients. Depending on the type of diet you follow, you may choose a snack that's high in protein -- such as a boiled egg or a few slices of nitrate-free turkey breast; or, if you prefer a high-carb option, you can have a slice of whole-grain toast.
If you have a difficult time sleeping, eat a small amount of tryptophan-containing protein, such as chicken or soybeans, together with complex carbs. Tryptophan helps you sleep, but carbs are needed to get tryptophan into the brain Finally, have your last snack 30 to 45 minutes before going to sleep to prevent indigestion or acid reflux.
Overnight Fasting to Lose Weight
The long fasting period -- from 6:00 p.m. until you eat breakfast the next day -- might also affect your weight loss. A study published in 2012 compared the calorie consumption and the weight of lab mice who ate the same high-fat diet but under two different conditions. One group was allowed to follow their normal eating patterns and could eat anytime during the day and night. The second group of mice was time-restricted. They could eat at will but only for eight hours, and then they fasted. It turned out that both groups ate the same number of calories, but after 100 days, the mice that fasted were healthier and weighed less than the free-eating mice. The researchers found that their metabolism didn't start to burn fat and breakdown cholesterol until after a few hours of fasting, according to the report published in Cell Metabolism. Based on this information, not eating after 6:00 p.m. -- enforcing an overnight fast -- might help you lose weight. But remember you still have to restrict your calories -- and these studies used lab animals, so experts have to determine whether people will have the same results.
The 2012 study also raises the issue of whether meal frequency makes a difference for weight loss. Two reviews of the existing research -- one published in Nutrition in April 2014 and the other in Advances in Nutrition in November 2014 -- came to the same conclusion: The existing evidence can't prove whether eating frequently -- such as three meals and two snacks -- is better for weight loss than only having two or three meals. The best advice comes from the American Heart Association, which reminds you that total caloric intake determines body size but that how you eat is more important than meal frequency.
Lose Weight, Even With Nighttime Snacks
Before you can plan any type of weight-loss menu you need a daily calorie goal. When you calculate your goal, remember that if you want to lose one pound a week, you'll have to consume 500 fewer calories than you use for energy every day. After you have daily calories determined, decide how many meals and snacks you want to eat each day, including snacks after 6:00 p.m. Figure 100 to 200 calories for each snack, then divide the remaining calories equally between your meals. This ensures you'll have a steady supply of glucose for energy.
Each meal should include a mix of lean protein, complex carbs, and vegetables or fruits. It's especially important to eat equal amounts of protein at each meal because that optimizes muscle-protein synthesis. When you eat after 6:00 p.m., choose a nutrient-rich snack. In other words, don't ruin your diet with high-calorie beverages such as sodas, sweets or baked goods that have added sugar or high-fat snacks like potato chips. Half of a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread with veggies provides nutrients, carbs and tryptophan, and stays under 200 calories, even if you add a dollop of low-calorie mayonnaise. Nonfat Greek yogurt, a bowl of oatmeal or whole-grain cereal topped with fresh fruit are also good nighttime snacks.
- Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center: True or False: Eating at Night Will Make You Gain Weight
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: Protein Ingestion Before Sleep Improves Post-Exercise Overnight Recovery
- Nutrients: The Health Impact of Nighttime Eating: Old and New Perspectives
- University of Pittsburgh Medical Center: Is Eating Before Bed OK?
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Tryptophan
- Nutrition: Potential Role of Meal Frequency as a Strategy for Weight Loss and Health in Overweight or Obese Adults
- Advances in Nutrition: Evidence for Efficacy and Effectiveness of Changes in Eating Frequency for Body Weight Management
- American Heart Association: Is 3 Meals a Day the Only Way?
- Cell Metabolism: Time-Restricted Feeding Without Reducing Caloric Intake Prevents Metabolic Diseases in Mice Fed a High-Fat Diet