Health Report Is eating late in the evening damaging your health?
The Mediterranean diet has undoubted health benefits but late-night dining may be harming us
We can’t believe it either, but the recent unprecedented hot weather in the UK may have put our health in jeopardy – but not for the reasons we may think. never mind the dehydration or the risk of sunburn, the long humid days and light summer evenings may have encouraged many of us to eat later, which could be causing problems. The immediate effects might be indigestion, but the long-term consequences could be much worse…
Timing is key
The concept of ‘we are what we eat’ has been drilled into us. But while tucking into oily fish, fresh vegetables and complex carbs is important for our body’s wellbeing, researchers have now revealed it’s not just what we eat, but when we eat that can have health repercussions.
Researchers at the Barcelona Institute of Global Health have discovered that going to bed on a full stomach, or eating after 10pm increases the risk of the two most common cancers: breast and prostate. The study, which included prostate and breast cancer patients as well as randomly selected individuals, looked at meal timings, sleep habits and chronotypes (a fancy term for whether someone is a ‘night owl’ or ‘morning lark’).
Results unveiled that early diners – people who ate their evening meal before 9pm or waited at least two hours before going to sleep – had a 20% lower risk of developing cancer, compared to latenight eaters, or those who hit the hay straight after. ‘Our study concludes that adherence to diurnal eating patterns (eating in the day) is associated with a lower risk of cancer,’ says lead author Research Professor Manolis Kogevinas.
What’s the link?
The research is still in its early stages – previously, links between food and cancer have only focused on diet, such as the quantity of red meat eaten, the importance of fruit and vegetables and the damaging effects of obesity – but initial thoughts are circling around the impact that late night eating has on our internal body clocks. ‘[The findings] highlight the importance of assessing circadian rhythms in studies on diet and cancer,’ explains Professor Kogevinas. It’s thought that long-term, late-night dining – and that includes the midnight munchies – could have similar effects to night shift working by disrupting our body clock, which is key for regulating our internal systems. Eating just before bed could force our body’s metabolism to speed up at a time when it should be winding down. ‘Boosting metabolism late at night could disrupt hormonal balance,’ explains Healthista’s nutritional director Rick Hay (healthista.com).
Hormones are chemical messengers that make us sleepy, hungry and stressed and are therefore closely linked to our body’s circadian rhythms. And breast and prostate cancers are closely linked to hormonal cues, explaining why late-night eating habits could increase our risk of these conditions.
‘When we eat, our body goes into digestion mode and when we sleep we want to be in sleep mode. If we combine the two we disrupt both processes, which can lead to digestive difficulties, sleep disturbances and potentially hormone imbalances,’ explains Rick. ‘It’s like
‘Try not To go To bed on a full stomach’
eating on the run – it’s best not done.’ Rick believes eating at least two to three hours before we go to bed gives our digestive systems time to settle down and our body time to get into sleep mode.
He also suggests avoiding heavy meals high in animal products, particularly meat, which can take a while to digest. ‘Vegan or vegetarian dishes, soups, stir-fries and fish with vegetables and salad are all great dinner options.’
Planning your meals
However, Rick believes it’s not just our supper schedule we need to sort – getting our timings correct for our other meals is key too. ‘You should aim to balance your blood sugar during the day, so it’s important to keep your meals at even points. That means breakfast at 7am or 8am, lunch at 1pm or 2pm and dinner at around 7pm,’ he advises. As well as reducing our risk of cancer, eating at regular times can help us manage our weight and prevent unhealthy snacking.
So while we can all stick with our healthy Mediterranean diets, it might be time to follow a more Nordic approach to meal timings – Scandi supper times range from 4pm for Norwegians to 7pm for Swedes. And interestingly, they have one of the lowest cases of breast and prostate cancer in Europe.
avoid those midnight munchies