There are a lot of elements of life where we all know what we’re meant to do, and that we aren’t going to do it. There are bad habits we know we need to cut down on and good habits we assure ourselves we’ll get around to picking up one day: Nobody smokes two packs a day and plays video games until dawn while munching through 30 bags of Skittles and thinks, “I’m doing everything right.”
One of those things we pretty much all know is that, if you want to lose weight, you don’t eat late at night — the general rule thrown around isn’t to eat three hours before going to bed. But is there any real difference between (a) eating and immediately going to sleep; and (b) eating and slumping on the couch for three hours in front of Large Men Punching Each Other IV, and then going to sleep? Because both involve taking in a big load of food and then not moving.
Well, it could be that the whole three-hour thing is wrong in the first place. “I’m in the camp where your body doesn’t know what time it is, so it doesn’t matter when you eat,” says personal trainer and Mirafit ambassador Zoe Woodward. “What matters more is how many calories you consume throughout the day and your physical activity levels. It all comes down to calories in versus calories out — being in a calorie deficit is the science behind weight loss, not the timings of your meals. You may find yourself eating mindlessly while relaxing in the evening, so not eating during this time could potentially help some people, but there’s no such thing as a magic three-hour window.”
Aaron Brown, research associate at Ultimate Performance Personal Training, largely agrees, but adds: “There is some nuance to this point. Eating closer to bedtime can cause some disruption to sleep in some people — there are various reasons, but mostly this could leave someone bloated, uncomfortable and too warm to fall asleep. Sleep is a cornerstone of health and supports weight-loss goals — research shows shorter sleepers tend to have higher body mass index, higher body fat percentages and higher amounts of harmful ‘central’ body fat.” Brown suggests an ideal post-work evening would involve an early spot of exercise, then eating around 7:30 p.m. and winding down for the rest of the evening. Because exercising right before bed is just as disruptive to sleep as a big-ass roast.
It’s all ultimately about eating less, then, whether that evening or later. Eating too much makes you sleep badly, and sleeping badly makes you eat worse. However, don’t go too far the other way, either. “It’s not advisable to eat a heavy meal before going to sleep but, equally, you don’t want to go to bed hungry,” says Christabel Majendie, resident sleep expert at handmade mattress company Naturalmat. “If you eat your evening meal early, say, more than four hours before you go to bed, you might want to have a light snack before going to sleep. But avoid sugary foods or those with a high-GI index, and choose a complex carbohydrate or those which are slow-release.” So it’s good news for fans of both early dinners and late-night potatoes.
Only a maniac eats their dinner and paces back and forth for three hours before falling immediately to sleep, of course. You’ve come home from work, you’re exhausted and it’s understandable if you just want to slump. But can you make relaxing work for you? Sort of. There are little things you can do to keep yourself slightly more active, says Lee Chambers, Wellbeing for Performance Coach at Essentialise. Placing remote controls, drinks or your phone just that little bit out of reach so you have to keep getting up, for instance. And consider doing your relaxing with company: “You make more micromovements when relaxing with others than doing so alone,” says Chambers. (There are, uh, certain micromovements we’re all more likely to make on our own, but whatevs.)
Getting enough sleep is incredibly important, so you’re better off nodding off right after dinner than forcing yourself to stay up late for some arbitrary amount of time and being hella pooped as a result. But if you’re hella pooped as a default, and have the audacity in this modern age to want some time when you’re awake but not working, a few hours of lying on the couch watching cars blow up probably won’t kill you, whenever you eat your dinner.