The Dietary Perils of Being a Night Owl

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Photo by: tdub303

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Are you a morning person — awake early with the larks and sparrows — or a night person who stays up late with the owls? If you answered the latter, you may make less healthy dietary choices and be at a greater risk for obesity, a new study indicates.

Researchers in Finland who studied the behavior of 1,854 participants between the ages of 25 and 74 determined that, even though morning and night people tended to take in the same amount of calories, the timing of their intake and the kinds of foods they ate differed.

On weekday mornings, night people tended to eat less in general, but consumed more sugary foods than morning people. Meanwhile, in the evenings, late-night types tended to take in more calories overall and especially sugar, fat and saturated fats than morning people.

On weekends, the differences between early risers and late-night types were even more stark – with night people eating more calories overall as well as more sugar and fat. They also ate more frequently and at more irregular hours than morning people. (Hello, late-night snack attacks.)

“Postponed energy and macronutrient intake timing of evening types with unfavorable dietary patterns may put them at higher risk of obesity and metabolic disturbances in the future,” the authors of the study, published in the journal Obesity, concluded.

The study adds to a growing body of evidence indicating that the “timing of meals is very important for our health and all calories are not created equal,” Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, the owner of Nutrition Starring You, LLC, tells Healthy Eats.

“People who eat more in the earlier part of the day and less in the latter part lose more weight and have improved glucose, insulin sensitivity and lipid metabolism compared with those who eat the same exact food but in the opposite order,” she says, citing a 2013 study conducted by researchers in Israel.

Skipping meals during the day, when our bodies are most active, and snacking unhealthily at night as we watch TV or surf the web, may affect the way calories are processed or stored. What’s more, we tend to make less healthy food choices at night – chips, ice cream and the like – which in turn may make us less hungry for nutrition-dense breakfast foods, like oatmeal, yogurt, eggs and fruit.

So what’s a night-owl to do? Harris-Pincus generally suggests her clients stop eating at least three or four hours before they hit the sack in order to curtail “mindless” nighttime snacking. Still, she allows, “Each person needs to make choices based on what works for their lifestyle.”

Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Glamour and Marie Claire, as well as Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer. In addition to contributing to Healthy Eats, she blogs for Food Network’s FN Dish.

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