Early dinners are often associated with families with young children and older adults. But another group is emerging as pro-early-dinner: the health conscious.
More and more research is emerging that shows strong health benefits of eating dinner earlier in the evening, no matter your age.
Chrono-nutrition: Why meal timing matters
Many nutrition scientists focus on nutrients and calories—i.e., the impact food has on our bodies. A newer branch of this subject is chrono-nutrition, which focuses on the effect meal timing can have on your metabolic health. It takes into account the body’s natural rhythms (including circadian rhythms, which regulate the sleep-wake cycle) and the way different foods are metabolized throughout the day.
For example, in the mornings, the body’s insulin sensitivity is higher, meaning it can process carbohydrates more efficiently. In the evening, however, the body’s sensitivity to insulin is lower, which could mean less stable blood sugar levels overnight.
Benefits of eating dinner earlier
Earlier dinnertime does more than support stable blood sugar levels. Improved digestion is another huge benefit. The body’s digestive system is most active during the day, and a heavy meal at night can disrupt the natural digestive process and lead to gastrointestinal issues you don’t want to deal with ever, but especially at night when you’re trying to sleep.
Speaking of sleep, this is another area that benefits from an earlier dinnertime. When the body has enough time to digest food properly, it’s easier to catch that elusive restful sleep.
And finally, earlier dinners can also help with weight management. Our metabolism slows down as the day starts to wind down, so if you’re snacking late into the night, those calories are more likely to be stored as fat, rather than burned off before you call it a night.
The best time to eat dinner
Eating dinner earlier in the day can help support our overall health, but just how early are we talking?
The science here is a little more mixed. Some studies say you should eat at 5 p.m., while others say as late as 8 p.m. is fine, as long as you eat a later breakfast the next day (after 11 a.m.).
Like most things in life, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the perfectly timed dinner. But keep the following tips in mind:
Aim for finishing dinner at least three hours before you go to sleep. This will give your body enough time to digest your meal before bedtime.
Eat all your meals in an 8-to-10-hour window.
Since our metabolism is slower at night than it is in the morning, eat your heavier meals earlier in the day and cap off your meal schedule with a light dinner.
Most people want to wind down at the end of a long day—and so does your body. Eating dinner earlier and avoiding snacks afterward can help our bodies get the wind-down time it needs to continue to support us.
Consistency, not perfection
While meal timing is important, timing every meal perfectly won’t always be possible. Dinner with friends, soccer games, work events, and, well, life, will require you to make occasional adjustments, and that’s okay. Find out what works best for you and your family most of the time, and strive for consistency rather than perfection.