Recently I wrote about assigning changes you want to make to their own day of the week in order to make them easier to remember. Today I suggest a change to your eating habits that although not assigned to a particular day of the week, is not that hard to remember. It is also a change that can make a big difference in your overall health, quality of sleep, and how happy you are with your weight.
A couple of years ago, I realized that I had fallen into the routine of eating dinner pretty late in the evening. I was usually too busy, or often not even home, to eat dinner early enough to feel comfortable before I went to bed. I found that if I eat dinner less than 3 or 4 hours before going to sleep, not only do I sleep less well, the next morning I have a much more difficult time getting going. There is also a lot of evidence that eating a big dinner too close to going to bed is bad for your health, your sleep, and makes it more likely you will gain weight. Some people disagree with the weight gain claims, but they make sense to me. It is likely missing dinner and thereby missing a few calories helps control your weight. It also makes sense that eating a meal and then going to sleep within a few hours slows your digestion and allows you to absorb more of the calories in the food you ate. I discussed weight gain in relation to type of food and when it is eaten in this post.
Here is how I changed my dinner eating routine. First I set a goal to always eat dinner by 6:30 or 7:00 pm. That worked once in a while, but often was impossible to accomplish. As I usually prefer to prepare and eat my dinner at home, rather than at a restaurant, I can’t decide at 6pm that it is time for dinner and just pull in to the nearest eating establishment and grab something. If I don’t arrive home, or finish working until 6:30 or 7:00, it is too late to prepare and eat dinner in a time frame that meets my objective to not go to sleep on a full stomach.
The next step I took was to skip dinner if it became too late. I was not worried about any ill effects from this as I believe dinner is a much less important meal than breakfast or lunch. At first this was difficult and I let my hunger draw me to the refrigerator to graze on whatever was available. Eventually, I changed another eating routine that made the occasional missed dinner less of a challenge. I just stopped worrying about when I ate lunch. I used to feel it was a problem if I did not get to eat lunch until 2 or 3 pm as this was too close to dinner. Now I view a late lunch as making it easier to eat less at dinner. When I don’t get to dinner at all, the late lunch makes it much easier. Some days, when I know I have a commitment in the early evening that will interfere with dinner I will purposely eat a late lunch. In other words, I plan for and make it easier to miss dinner on those days. Often when I am at a meeting at dinner time, other people will mention the fact that they will be eating dinner when they get home at 8 or 9 pm. This is a big mistake. In a situation like that is better for your sleep, health, and weight to skip dinner and get to bed early.
Some days when I get into bed after no dinner, my stomach will be talking to me, full of complaints about being empty of food. Once asleep there is no feeling of hunger. Upon awakening the next morning I always feel great, ready to get up quickly to start the day. On the other hand if I had eaten dinner the night before, too soon before going to sleep, I will have a very sluggish start to the day.
By detailing all this, I am not recommending that skipping dinner be a regular event. Dinner is an important meal for lots of people, for many different reasons. Rather, what I am saying worked for me was to become more relaxed about having to eat dinner on those nights when it became a rushed, late evening meal. The added bonus is that I sleep better, and expend much less effort maintaining a healthy weight.
Update 2-26-2012: I have noticed this post getting a LOT of increased this week so maybe this topic is recently in the news? If there has been any new research on this that any of you visitors know about, please post a link in a comment below. I still believe this is a very important change to make for your health and maintaining or achieving a healthy weight. Of course I struggle like everyone else with not having enough time in the day and not getting enough sleep and am always looking for ways to help with that problem!