May 21, 2024

The Best Time to Eat Dinner, According to Nutrition Experts

Determining the best time to eat dinner can affect your overall health. Between work, the commute back home, and possibly trying to fit in a quick workout, eating before the sun goes down is no simple task.

Chances are, you’ve heard people debate eating earlier or later in the day. Sometimes, eating dinner is based more on when we finish cooking or when a restaurant can seat you. But, when we eat our meals does affect our overall health.

“The time of day we eat our meals is determined by a myriad of factors, like our work, schedules, our hunger levels, the medications we take, and even the times our friends, family, and coworkers are free to share a meal,” says Catherine Canadeo, board-certified holistic health practitioner, integrative nutritionist, and the president and CEO of Catherine Canadeo Health & Wellness.

While your busy schedule or social life might have the most influence on meal timing, it never hurts to consider tweaking your schedule when you can. Ahead, experts explain the best time to eat dinner and how to make it work for you.

When is the best time to eat dinner?

Focusing on eating vegetables, carbs, protein, and all the good-for-you nutrients is crucial for overall health, but you could be optimizing your dinners by eating at a better time. “What you eat is important, but when you eat matters too,” Canadeo says.

So, when is the best time to eat dinner? While even doctors and dietitians admit schedules and things outside of our control all have influences on when the best time to eat dinner is, they seem to agree around one time frame. “Eating between 5 to 7 p.m. would be ideal,” says Dana Cohen, M.D., integrative medical doctor and co-author of Quench. “However, the later it gets the less food you should consume.”

One study published in Cell Metabolism found that people who ate meals at 5 p.m. burned 60 more calories than those who ate dinner later. The research participants who ate dinner later also stored fat differently and had higher levels of hunger. This means, according to the study, that eating around 5 p.m. is the best time for dinner if you are trying to lose weight, but there are other benefits to eating at this time.

Canadeo, who says the best time to eat dinner according to several studies is between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., agrees that leaning on the earlier side is better. “Researchers found that when eating earlier, they had better blood sugar regulation and improved fat metabolism, which is a factor in fat storage,” Canadeo says. “Eating an early and light dinner helps to improve sleep, improves digestion, boosts metabolism, and reduces blood pressure.”

How to figure out when to eat dinner

If eating at 5 p.m. is virtually impossible for you, do not fret. Canadeo recommends eating roughly three to four hours before you sleep for your well-being since digestion slows down at the end of the day. Having a three-hour window before sleeping will improve your sleep and digestion, per the Cleveland Clinic. So, if you’re not going to sleep until 10 p.m., eating at 7 p.m. works.

This is especially true for people trying to lose weight or with certain health conditions. “For people who have GERD and reflux, eating earlier reduces the likelihood of the backflow of the stomach contents into the esophagus,” says Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., registered dietitian and nutritionist of Maya Feller Nutrition and author of Eating from Our Roots: 80+ Healthy Home-Cooked Favorites from Cultures Around the World.

You also want to avoid eating too early because going to bed hungry can disrupt your sleep quality, per the Mayo Clinic. To avoid stomach growls and hunger pains while lying in bed, try to eat a bigger breakfast and a slightly larger lunch than your dinner.

The best time to eat will ultimately vary from person to person depending on schedules and sleeping patterns, but consistency is the key to improving overall health. “Keeping a consistent meal schedule from day to day is linked to weight loss, an increase in energy, and reduction in metabolic risk factors for chronic disease,” Canadeo says.

Benefits of eating an earlier dinner

Experts explain reasons why you should be having your last meal earlier in the afternoon.

Aids in weight loss for those trying to lose weight

One study found that eating earlier improves your metabolic health, which can help you lose weight. “A growing body of research seems to suggest that an early dinner may be healthier than eating later in the evening, pointing to the fact that when sleep overlaps digestion, the body tends to have more difficulty processing sugars and fats,” Canadeo says. Research also shows that eating later can prevent successful weight loss and lead to weight gain.

Facilitates better sleep

Not only does eating right before bedtime have negative effects on the quality of your sleep, but eating earlier can actually improve sleep. “Having an early dinner is ideal as it helps the body stay in sync with the circadian rhythm clock or our body clock,” Canadeo says. “Synchronizing your sleep-wake cycles and meal schedules helps your body rest, recover, and burn calories effectively.”

Prevents heartburn

Heartburn is worse after eating and in the evening, so eating late at night can be a recipe for disaster. “Health conditions such as Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) require people to wait at least three hours after eating before lying down or going to sleep to prevent the contents of the stomach from going back up into the esophagus that may cause heartburn,” Dr. Cohen says.

May make mornings easier

Do you ever wonder how some people seem to just jump out of bed in the morning? Eating dinner earlier is one trick to help you transition from a night owl to an early bird. “You feel lighter and more energetic in the morning,” Canadeo says. “There is less trouble waking up. You wake up early and utilize the most productive time of day.”

Improves digestion

Dr. Cohen, Feller, and Canadeo all agree that eating an earlier dinner can improve your digestion. “The timing of food has been shown to help with proper digestion, absorption, and metabolism of food,” Dr. Cohen says.

Improves blood sugar levels

Eating bigger breakfasts and lunches and eating an earlier dinner can improve blood sugar levels and reduce the amount of time they are elevated. According to the Mayo Clinic, eating, dehydration, stress, and more factors can cause blood sugar levels to rise, but having consistently high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) can lead to serious health complications.

Canadeo says keeping meals within a 10-hour period could improve blood sugar levels, and research shows that eating earlier lowers blood glucose levels after dinner and throughout the night. This is because you don’t metabolize glucose as efficiently when you eat out of phase with your circadian rhythm.

Pros and cons of a later dinner

Just because an earlier dinner is better for you doesn’t mean there are zero benefits to eating a little later. “Eating closer to bedtime may be helpful when trying to stave off a blood sugar low during the night,” Feller says.

There are hormones and amino acids in foods that can help you doze off if you eat them before bedtime. “Certain foods containing tryptophan, serotonin, or melatonin may help you to fall asleep, but eating a larger meal close to bedtime may disrupt sleep and may not be great for overall health,” Dr. Cohen says.

Ultimately, eating too late has more cons than pros. According to the Cleveland Clinic, eating less than three hours before you go to sleep can result in weight gain because the calories are stored as fat while you sleep, rather than being burned off. “Studies show eating too close to bedtime decreases glucose tolerance and increases the likelihood of obesity five times,” Dr. Cohen says.

Don’t let this stop you from eating dinner if you missed the “ideal” time period to eat. Eating dinner later or right before going to sleep is better than not eating at all, especially if you’re hungry or didn’t eat enough throughout the day. “Even in sleep, your body needs energy to function, as it’s recovering from the previous day,” Canadeo says. “When you go to bed hungry, your body lacks the calories it needs to recharge. This results in your body holding onto carbs and fats instead of using it as fuel.”

Is a lighter or bigger dinner better?

As with most nutritional advice, eating a lighter or bigger dinner mostly depends on the individual. “Some of my patients who experience reflux have a harder time with a large dinner,” Feller says. “And some of our athletes and performers enjoy and are able to tolerate a large dinner.”

Typically, it’s best to eat a lighter dinner and more food throughout the day. “Your metabolic rate (the way your body processes food, nutrients, and calories) is usually at its peak around noon,” says Dr. Cohen, who recommends bigger breakfasts and lunches to prevent late-night snacking.

Canadeo also says a light dinner is beneficial as it can improve your blood pressure, sleep quality, digestion, and metabolism.

What to eat for dinner

Dr. Cohen says food is subjective, and if you want to eat eggs for dinner and chicken for breakfast, that is entirely up to you. Whether you’re looking for a low-calorie meal or a healthy high-protein, low-carb dinner, the most important thing is to eat nutritious food and get enough macro and micronutrients throughout the day.

“Having a good balance of essential nutrients such as protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water is important during any meal,” Dr. Cohen says. “I love Mediterranean diet foods which include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts, healthy fats like olive oil, and moderate amounts of fish and other lean proteins.” Not only is the Mediterranean diet filled with delicious meal options, but it is also beneficial for heart health, weight loss, and lowering the risk of certain cancers.

One of Dr. Cohen’s favorite dinners is escarole and beans drizzled with olive oil over crusty whole-grain bread. “This light delicious meal is easy to digest and filled with plant protein, good fats, and fiber making it a good choice for dinner and addresses the importance of meal timing,” Dr. Cohen says.

“People should eat foods that are accessible, affordable, and culturally relevant,” Feller says. “In addition, it’s important to eat enough. I often enjoy rice, beans, and avocado as a lunch or dinner meal.”

Is what and when we eat dinner really that important?

Yes. The food we eat and when we eat it has a large influence on our overall health. “Having a healthy dinner is linked to good sleep, good choices at breakfast and lunch, lowers inflammation, greater resilience to stress, better digestion, stable blood sugar, and lower anxiety,” Canadeo says.

A healthy diet filled with vegetables, healthy carbs, and fruits can help reduce the risk of heart disease, stabilize blood pressure and cholesterol levels, improve your bone health, and manage your weight.

This doesn’t mean you’re ruining your health when you have a delicious dessert or a late-night snack, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself when it comes to eating. Just try your best to eat dinner within the 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. window, and to fill your meals with protein and vegetables, and you’ll be golden.

Editorial Assistant

Isabella Cavallo is a freelance editorial assistant at Prevention. She graduated from Binghamton University with a bachelor’s degree in English: Literature & Rhetoric. Isabella gained a passion for health journalism after a rare cancer diagnosis and treatment. When she’s not writing, you can find her listening to music, playing Bananagrams, or running through Central Park.

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