After a long day at work and maybe even an evening workout to boot, nothing is quite as satisfying as coming home to a nice dinner. Of course, chaotic and inconsistent work schedules complicate this fantasy and sometimes we eat this meal at all different hours of the evening.
The question is though, is there a specific time you should be eating dinner? We spoke with Cynthia Sass, RD, CSSD, and NYC- and LA-based performance nutritionist and Sydney Greene, MS, RD, from Greene Health to explore this question further. And luckily, there isn't just one best time to eat dinner.
Read on, and for more on how to eat healthy, you won't want to miss these 21 Best Healthy Cooking Hacks of All Time.
What is the best time to eat dinner so that you don't eat too late?
"The goal is to finish eating dinner, and any dessert, at least 2-3 hours before bed," says Greene. "For most [people], with hectic workdays, this is not entirely realistic so set a non-negotiable 1 hour before bed that is food-free. Research shows that those who go 2-3 hours without eating before bed have a decreased cancer risk, insulin resistance, and inflammation."
Sass also shares a similar viewpoint. "I generally recommend three hours between the time you finish eating and the time you go to bed," she says. "The exception is if you're an athlete or on a strength training program and trying to build muscle. In this case, a lightish protein-rich snack about one hour before bed is recommended."
Is there a particular amount of hours you should wait between the time you eat lunch and when you eat dinner?
"In general, I encourage clients to aim for 3-5 hours between meals as this allows the body time proper time for digestion," Greene explains.
Sass also says that between 4-5 hours is a sufficient amount of time to wait between meals and, as she told us in the story, "This Is the Best Time to Eat Lunch" practicing mindfulness is key in determining when your body needs its next meal.
"I advise my clients to pay attention to hunger and fullness cues in addition to energy, mood, and other indications of when and how much to eat," she says. "I believe it's best to have a mild to moderate level of hunger when you eat—not starving, but some concrete physical signs and symptoms of hunger."
What if you have a light snack in between meals?
Greene shares a similar perspective on the importance of mindfulness as Sass.
"Listen to your body. If only two hours have gone by since you had your snack, go ahead and have dinner. It is better to sit down for a meal a little hungry than totally ravenous, as this prevents overeating," says Greene. "Since most [people] have lunch around noon and 1 pm and then dinner around 7 pm and 8 pm, I recommend aiming for a snack around 3 pm and 4 pm."
Greene also points out that a snack should be less than 200 calories and provide some kind of protein and, ideally, have less than five grams of sugar.
What if you work late or like to work out after work?
The most important takeaway from this question is to not skip dinner, says Greene.
"I find when people skip meals, they lean more on snacks, which leads to overeating due to lack of overall satisfaction," she explains. "If [you're] working out after work, have a light snack around 4 pm."
As a post-workout snack, Greene suggests one string cheese with an apple, or two dried dates with 1-2 tablespoons of peanut butter, or a handful of high fiber crackers and 1-2 tablespoons of hummus. She also recommends packing a few nuts to eat post-workout so you can immediately replenish your muscles. "Dinner can then be something light [like] a green smoothie, veggie scramble, [or] turkey roll-ups."
Sass says that if you work late, you should pack your dinner or order something healthy into the office.
"You don't want to work late, come home, eat dinner and go right to bed," she says. "This doesn't allow your dinner to digest well before sleep, which can interfere with sleep and may lead to weight gain because metabolism slows during sleep as your energy demand is lower during this time."
Sass says that if you hit the gym after dinner, it's best to split your meal in half and eat the first half a few hours before your evening sweat session. Then, go ahead and eat the other half afterward. She recommends eating the carb-heavy portion of your dinner prior to working out so that you have the energy to power through it and saving the vegetables, protein, and healthy fats for the post-workout part of your dinner.
What happens if you don't eat a sufficient meal for dinner?
Eating a big meal can disrupt your sleep cycle just as much as not eating enough before bed.
"You may not sleep well or you may wake up in the middle of the night hungry," explains Sass. "You also miss out on key nutrients needed for maintenance, repair, and healing of cells in the body."
Now you probably have a better idea of when you should eat dinner, with a few main factors considered! For more ways to keep health top of mind at the end of the day, don't miss these 9 Healthy Dinner Habits For A Flat Belly.
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