We've all heard that eating late at night can be a fast track to weight gain. But with busy schedules (hey, none of us are immune to hitting the gym post-work or pulling extra hours at the office), sometimes sitting down to the dinner table super late is unavoidable. To make you feel even worse, one new study says that even eating dinner as early as 5 p.m. isn't good enough. Instead, you should be sitting down by 2 p.m. Yes, seriously.
The goal of the Louisiana State University research was to test the effects of fasting at night. (Read: Is fasting a good idea for weight loss?) Researchers had people eat the same number of calories in two different four-day tests: In the first, they ate between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., and in the second test, they ate between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. The results: Cutting off consumption at 2 p.m., which allows you to have a subsequent fasting period of 18 hours, not only helped people burn more fat, but it also surprisingly helped control their appetite throughout the day. For what it's worth, the study was very small; only 11 people participated. It's also important to note, however, that if you aren't looking to lose weight, drastically cutting back on calories is unnecessary and could actually set you up for weight gain, as your body will begin storing any calories you do decide to feed it. (Learn more about why undereating works against you.)
But let's be real: Dinner (if you can even call it that) at 2 p.m. is unrealistic for most people—and completely unhealthy if you're hitting the gym in the evenings. Your body needs fuel in the form of protein and carbs so it has the energy to get through those HIIT classes and strength training sets. (Find out exactly what to eat before and after a workout.) That said, the study does suggest some interesting tweaks to your eating schedule, says Niket Sonpal, M.D., an assistant clinical professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine who was not directly involved with the research.
Sonpal says he likes that the results focus on changing your habits. "The number-one way to get people to lose weight is by getting them to change their behavior," he says. "It's an interesting starting point and suggests that it might be beneficial to consume the majority of your calories over breakfast and lunch and have a lighter dinner." Now that sounds much more reasonable.