As a doctor and the president and founder of the Canada India Network Society (CINS), I’m sometimes asked why South Asians tend to eat dinner late in the evening compared to other Canadians and whether it’s bad to eat late at night. It could be that our cultures prefer preparing and consuming meals as the day cools down. With food as one of the cornerstones of our social lives, it could also be that meals simply coincide with our parties, which also tend to start late. Good thing refrigerators have lights inside!
No matter the reason, eating late at night can, in fact, impact our health. Research suggests that eating dinner later in the evening increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. With South Asian people being two to three times more likely to develop these conditions 10 years earlier than other ethnic groups the connection is clear.
The good news: By making a few easy changes, you can avoid these health risks and still enjoy meals.
Is eating late at night bad for you?
Yes, it can be unhealthy if you make it a regular habit and depending on what time you choose to go to bed. Your body never stops digesting food, but the process slows down significantly while you’re sleeping. This means that if you don’t give your body time to metabolize the food before going to sleep, it increases the chances of your digestive system converting food into fat. The more fat your body stores, the higher the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other health conditions.
When is the best time to stop eating?
To give your body time to fully break down and absorb the food you’ve eaten, you should allow for around 60 to 90 minutes between meals and bedtime. It’s generally recommended to eat two hours before sunset because sunset tends to determine our sleeping patterns. So, the best time to eat is between 4 pm and 8 pm, depending on the time of year.
If your schedule doesn’t allow you to eat between 4pm and 8pm, that’s ok. Simply try to wait up to 2 hours after eating before you go to bed, and if you can incorporate some physical activity, such as taking a walk, that’s even better.
What about parties and festivals?
Parties, weddings and festivals are a time to celebrate, so go ahead and enjoy. They don’t happen every day, and the occasional late night meal is no big deal. Health issues can start coming up when eating at 10pm and going to bed right away becomes a nightly habit.
If you do eat later, which can’t be avoided at many South Asian parties, try not to go to sleep right after eating. Instead, give the food an hour or two to digest. If you like to dance, this is the time to do your best Prabhu Deva impression!
Is breakfast important?
Your first meal of the day is significant. Your body is depleted of calories, your blood sugar level is lower, and you’ll want to replenish that. While there are a lot of recommendations about what you should eat at breakfast, my own perspective is you should eat what you enjoy eating. And if you have a bigger breakfast, you should cut back a bit on lunch and supper. It’s all about balance.
How many meals a day should you eat?
While three meals a day is the norm, I’m of the view that you should eat when you’re hungry. If you’re not hungry, don’t eat. Listen to your body! I don’t believe that people have to follow the norm.
What about chai?
If you’ve got a busy social calendar, there’s a good chance you’ll end up having a number of cups of chai loaded with sugar each day. Consuming too much sugar can lead to weight gain, heart disease and diabetes, so again, it’s important to practise moderation.
Have one cup of chai, not several, and politely refuse offers by saying that you’re trying to cut down on sugar. People will respect and admire your efforts to live healthier!
Similarly, turning down a host’s delicious food can be hard, of course, and in a way that doesn’t offend the cook can be even harder. If you’re visiting with friends or family and you have just eaten a meal before arriving, you shouldn’t eat again, especially if you’re not hungry.
That’s when you need to draw on your inner strength by politely and firmly saying “no thank you” and adding that your doctor says you need to eat only when hungry and ideally earlier in the day. I’m a doctor after all, and it’s true!
What about cravings and stress-eating?
Cravings are different from hunger. Our brains crave certain foods, and in times of stress, they tend to crave them even more. Hunger, on the other hand, is a physical response telling you it’s time to eat. Keeping this in mind when cravings strike, and trying to only eat in response to hunger, can be an effective and relatively easy way to cut down on stress-eating.
Again, it’s all about making small changes by being aware of what and when you’re eating. This approach is known as “mindful eating,” with research showing that it can promote better digestion, keep you full with less food, and influence wiser choices about what and when you eat.
Have you been able to curb your late night eating? Share with us in the comments below.
Canada India Network Society is a not-for-profit society registered in the province of British Columbia. Founded in 2009 with a vision of lowering the burden of chronic diseases and building a healthy society through engagement, collaboration and technology. The society is a virtual, project focused organization, and it organizes major international conferences (CINI) and round tables to explore, network and facilitate health and health care.
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