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Eat late, gain weight: Time to shatter the myth

Trying to lose weight? Some diet "tips" can actually do more harm than good. Drs Judith Wurtman and Nina Frusztajer Marquis explain why what you eat is more important than when you eat it.
A few years ago I visited Argentina to attend a scientific meeting and to see friends who had lived near me in the states many years earlier. I was invited to their home for dinner and was told to arrive around 10:30 PM. Dinner was served at 11 PM, and I did not get back to my hotel until a few hours later. I soon learned that eating that late at night was the norm. No one would think of starting dinner before 10 -- at the earliest.

Yet many North Americans believe that eating late at night will lead to weight gain. People who try to watch their weight will often boast that they never eat anything after supper, and the meal is often finished by 6:30 (lunchtime by an Argentinean clock). But as you might suspect, my friends, along with most of the people I saw in Argentina, were very thin. I was told that in Buenos Aires, the average woman wears a size 2 dress.

So why does eating late in the US make us fat and in Argentina keep them thin? The reason we put on the pounds if we eat late at night in contrast to our friends in the Southern Hemisphere has nothing to do with the timing of supper. It has everything to do with the food eaten before supper is served or after it is eaten as well as the size of the meal in-between.

Like us, the Argentineans tend to snack a few hours before dinner; otherwise the time between lunch and dinner would be impossibly long. But the similarity ends there. In the US, many people visit coffee cafés at snack time and munch on huge pastries. The fat-laden oversized coffees alone can easily top 600 calories. In contrast, the Argentine snack, which is eaten around 7 PM, may consist of a tiny cup of espresso and a miniature croissant or a few small cookies.

In Argentina, despite the late dinner hour, most portions are tiny compared to what we eat. The exceptions are steak and other meats that are served in generous amounts. However, I noticed that thin diners rarely ate the whole serving. For example in a restaurant I was served pasta as a main course (and the portion was so small it would have been considered a side dish in the United States). Dessert at this particular meal was a small pear. There is another plus to dining so late: no after-dinner snacking.

Many in this country who eat an early dinner will then fill the time until bedtime with frequent forays into the kitchen. But they are rarely checking to see if the dishwasher has finished its cycle. Instead they are checking to see if some of those leftovers are still in the refrigerator or trying to remember where in the freezer the cookies were hidden. Often late-night grazing consists of high-calorie foods or foods eaten mindlessly while watching TV or a combination of both.

Then there are those who restrict their daytime eating for various reasons, including being too busy, not planning for meals, or trying not to eat in an effort to lose weight. The result is that by evening the person is famished and eats everything in sight with little regard for making healthy options or controlling portions. If you must eat dinner late because of work, school or social engagements, you may typically munch away your hunger before ever sitting down to the meal. Many of our clients who dine late say they also eat an earlier supper in the form of snacks.

So what can you do about this? Moving to Argentina is not the solution, but controlling your appetite is. There is a natural way to stop eating which does not rely on going to bed right after supper. The brain contains a natural appetite-suppressing switch, and the brain chemical serotonin is the key to this switch.

Serotonin is produced in the brain only after certain carbohydrates are eaten in the right amounts and at the right times. Eating a carbohydrate snack in the mid-to-late afternoon is a perfect remedy for turning off your appetite. It seems that there is a world-wide craving for carbohydrates in the afternoon, possibly because serotonin levels may be lower at that time. In fact, lower serotonin levels are what make many people experience a grumpiness, impatience or lack of focus at that time. Having enough carbohydrate to trigger serotonin production will subdue your appetite and put you in a better mood.

It is interesting to note that the English tradition of late afternoon tea with a carbohydrate snack has satisfied their afternoon carbohydrate cravings for centuries. In Switzerland, coffee shops are filled with shoppers having coffee along with a tiny pastry or a small piece of chocolate (this is the country of chocolate after all). And the Swiss often have a very light dinner of soup, salad, yogurt or a fruit and bread a few hours later. So instead of turning the late afternoon carbohydrate craving into supper at 5 PM, try an international approach.

Have something to drink, decaffeinated coffee or tea for example if caffeine that late will keep you up at night. And do have a low fat but tasty carbohydrate snack along with it. There are now rice or soy crackers that are low in fat, fat free tiny meringues, or if you really want a savory treat, what about two or three vegetable sushi rolls? The latter are found in supermarkets, convenience stores and food courts. We usually don't think of eating rice as a snack but as a wrap around crunchy vegetables, it makes a nice change from pretzels.

And don't overlook having a cup of fat free hot chocolate with lots of marshmallows melted on top. Marshmallows are a very low fat carbohydrate snack that we usually forget to eat. A couple of graham crackers with the hot chocolate will keep your appetite under control and make dinnertime a pleasant wait.

Copyright © 2006 Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, and Nina Frusztajer Marquis, MD

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