Obesity has caused weight-related diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and many others. Typical diet mantras advise against midnight snacking, but few studies have looked at the effects of late eating simultaneously on the three main players in body weight regulation. This study looked at how when we eat significantly impacts our energy expenditure and appetite while increasing molecular pathways in fat tissue.

“We wanted to test the mechanisms that may explain why late eating increases obesity risk,” said Scheer, who is a sleep and circadian disorders expert. Previous studies had suggested that people who ate later in the evening had an increased risk of obesity, high body fat levels and difficulties losing weight.

First author Nina Vujovic said, “We found that eating four hours later makes a significant difference for hunger levels, the way we burn calories after we eat, and the way we store fat.”

Scientists discovered that eating late at night or in the day can lead to negative health repercussions, such as increased body fat. After testing a series of 16 patients with a BMI index in the overweight or obese range on an intervention protocol consisting of eating strictly scheduled meals early in the day, they found that those participants who followed this protocol gained less weight and lost more belly fat than the patients who ate four hours later in the day.

The study looked at what happens when we eat too late. It found that later eating times led to a decline in the hormone leptin which has the opposite effect and tells our brain that we’re full. Eating later also leads to us burning calories at a slower rate, as well as changes in genes related to how our body stores fat. These findings show that eating late could be making it easier to gain weight because it promotes certain genes and speeds up hunger.

It is well documented that eating later correlates with one’s chances of developing obesity. This study found that by strictly controlling for behavioral and environmental factors, such as physical activity, posture, sleep, and light exposure, the investigators were able to identify how each body system involved in energy balance reacted differently to different meals.

Scheer’s team plans on recruiting more women in future studies, and is interested in researching how meal times and bedtimes can affect energy balance. For their study, the research team was able to control for menstrual phase but this is made it difficult to recruit more women.

The study shows the impact of late and early eating on obesity risk. By controlling for other factors, this study found that late eating is linked to an increased risk of obesity.

Late-night eating changes weight, metabolism

Scheer was compensated by the following companies: Bayer HealthCare, Sentara Health Care, Philips, Vanda Pharmaceuticals, and Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. He served on the Board of Directors for the Sleep Research Facility and is a consultant at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. All are unrelated to the current work.