It's more important to eat a healthy, balanced diet than to count the calories in each meal you have during the day. Dinner calories, as well as total calories from all the carbs, protein and fats you consume daily, should come from a variety of nutrient-dense foods in the right proportions.
Whether you eat 30 percent or 60 percent of your total daily calories for dinner, it's important to make smart food choices that include vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and healthy fats.
Why Are Calories Significant?
A calorie is a unit of measurement for the amount of energy in a food or drink. Your body needs energy to fuel its daily functions, such as breathing and digestion.
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When you eat more calories than your body burns, they get stored as excess fat. Over time, this may lead to weight gain. As the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute notes, an important part of a healthy eating plan is balancing your total calorie intake versus energy output.
Knowing the calorie content of the food you eat can make it easier to maintain a healthy weight. According to the Cleveland Clinic, carbohydrates, fats and proteins provide calories. Caloric needs are different for everyone, depending on age, sex, weight, level of physical activity, lifestyle, overall general health, medications taken and other factors.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that the calories needed for adult women should range from 1,600 to 2,400 per day, and 2,000 to 3,000 per day for men. If you're trying to lose weight, you will need to determine the amount of carbohydrates, fats and proteins that you can eat as part of your diet.
If you are mostly sedentary with little or no physical activity, aim for the low end of the daily calorie range. If you live a more active lifestyle, the high end of the range may be more reflective of your needs. To slim down, reduce your daily calories. Since 3,500 calories equal about 1 pound of fat, the Mayo Clinic suggests cutting 500 to 1,000 calories a day from your diet to lose 1 to 2 pounds per week.
Use an online calorie calculator, such as the USDA's DRI Calculator, to determine your estimated daily energy intake.
Divide Your Calories Between Meals
Deciding how to divide your calories between breakfast, lunch and dinner depends largely on your lifestyle. If your morning is rushed with getting kids off to daycare, walking the dog or leaving for a long commute, it's difficult to make breakfast a major source of your day's calorie intake. Many people might find that grabbing a quick sandwich or salad for lunch is all they can fit into their daily routine.
However, restricting your calories at breakfast and lunch may set you up for afternoon hunger pangs, which could result in excessive calorie consumption from unhealthy, high-calorie snacks or overeating at dinnertime.
It's important to determine a daily plan that includes a well-balanced diet containing all the food groups. One option is to divide your calorie consumption equally between your meals. For example, with a 1,500-calorie-a-day goal, the breakdown could be:
- Breakfast calories — 400
- Snack or beverage calories — 100
- Lunch calories — 400
- Snack or beverage calories — 100
- Dinner calories — 400
- Snack, dessert or beverage calories — 100
Whichever way you decide to allocate the percentages of calories for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, be sure to balance your daily calorie consumption with nutrient-dense foods. If you choose to eat the largest portion of your calories at dinner, half of your plate should consist of healthy vegetables to help fulfill your daily nutritional requirements, advises the National Institute of Aging.
Read more: Recommended Caloric Intake for Weight Loss
Snacks can unintentionally add too many calories and unhealthy additives to your daily caloric intake. To make sure that in-between-meal eating doesn't cut into your dinner calories' allocation, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans offers a number of ideas for maintaining a low-calorie healthy eating pattern. These include:
- Replace high-calorie snacks with nutrient-dense ones.
- Eat whole fruits, not fruit products with added sugars.
- Substitute whole grains for breakfast cereals.
- Choose unsalted snacks.
- Use oil instead of solid fats when cooking.
- Drink beverages with no added sugar.
Dinner Calories and Weight Loss
If you're trying to manage your weight, eating most of your calories earlier in the day rather than at dinner may be more beneficial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a small 12-week study on weight loss in August 2016, comparing the effect of a high-calorie lunch with that at dinner. The researchers found that eating more calories at lunch than later in the day led to greater weight loss and improved insulin resistance in overweight women.
Another study, which was published in the International Journal of Obesity in April 2013, used 420 participants to evaluate the role of food timing in weight loss. Subjects who consumed the majority of their calories before 3 p.m. lost more weight over 20 weeks than those who ate their meal later. Both groups consumed similar total calories throughout the day.
Other studies suggest that eating the majority of daily calories at dinner doesn't affect body weight. For example, the British Journal of Nutrition published a meta-analysis in October 2017, which searched databases for studies comparing the relationship between weight changes and eating dinner.
Four studies showed a positive association between body mass index and consuming a dinnertime meal. Five studies showed no association, while one study showed an inverse association. Overall, this meta-analysis suggested no difference in weight change between the small- and large-dinner groups. Researchers recommended that reducing evening dinner intake for weight loss cannot be substantiated by clinical evidence.
Read more: List of Low-Carb & Low-Calorie Foods
However, eating dinner very late at night may lead to poor digestion and may also affect your sleep. As a rule of thumb, avoid heavy or fatty meals as they may cause or worsen heartburn. If you're feeling hungry, reach for a light snack, such as cottage cheese, low-fat yogurt or a handful of berries.
- Cleveland Clinic: "Fat and Calories"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "How Many Calories Do Adults Need?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics"
- USDA National Agricultural Library Ask Contact Visit: "DRI Calculator for Healthcare Professionals"
- NIH National Institute of Aging: "Know Your Food Groups"
- 2020-2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: "Chapter 2 Shifts Needed To Align With Healthy Eating Patterns"
- International Journal of Obesity: "Timing of Food Intake Predicts Weight Loss Effectiveness"
- British Journal of Nutrition: "Are Large Dinners Associated with Excess Weight, and Does Eating a Smaller Dinner Achieve Greater Weight Loss? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- NIH National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute: "Aim for a Healthy Weight"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Beneficial Effect of High Energy Intake at Lunch Rather Than Dinner on Weight Loss in Healthy Obese Women in a Weight-Loss Program"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Why Does Your Heartburn Always Seem Worse at Night?"