Bad News for Night Owls

If you’ve ever been on a diet, you have no doubt been advised by a well-meaning friend or relative not to eat at night because it would make you gain weight. You may have dismissed this guidance, feeling safe in the knowledge that a calorie is a calorie no matter when you eat it. While it is true that caloric values do not increase as the day progresses, it turns out that when you eat can affect your weight and, in consequence, your health. The news is even worse for night owls like myself, as it turns out that those of us who love sleeping in are most at risk due to meal timing.

In a study recently published in Obesitythe scientific journal of The Obesity Society, researchers examined the eating habits of around 1800 randomly chosen subjects to see if their internal clock affected their dietary choices. The participants were first given a questionnaire that determined whether they were “morning people” or “evening people.” Then, they were questioned about what they had eaten over the past 48 hours. From this, the researchers determined that morning people made much better eating choices throughout the day.

Night owls were found to eat much more sugar in the morning than early birds, and they were also found to eat more sugar and saturated fat in the evening than than their early-rising counterparts. In addition, evening people tended to eat more often than morning people (six times per day on average for the night owls, versus three times per day for the morning people). Morning people also ate more protein and fiber in the mornings, macronutrients that tend to decrease hunger throughout the day, possibly helping them make better eating choices for the rest of the day. Making matters worse for evening people, these trends were even more pronounced on weekends. In addition, night owls reported getting significantly less sleep and physical activity than early-risers. All of these things combine to increase the risks of illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease for evening people.

All may not be lost, though, for those of us who hate the sound of our morning alarm clocks. We are in control of what we eat and how much exercise we get. By mimicking the food and activity choices that morning people tend to make, we may be able to avoid some of the most health-destroying aspects of our love of sleeping in. Choosing high-fiber and high-protein breakfast items, like eggs or oatmeal with fruit, may help stave off the hunger that leads us to binge snack in the evenings. We must also pay more attention to our consumption of sugar and saturated fats, which is something we’ve known for a long time but that night owls may need to pay more attention to. And, of course, if we aren’t exercising, then we need to start doing so. The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate activity at least five times per week.

For now at least, feel free to keep hitting that snooze button and sleeping in on the weekends. Until further study proves otherwise, it seems that eating and exercising like an early bird will be enough to keep you healthy while still allowing you to keep the sleep schedule you prefer.

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