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Is Eating Late Bad for Your Heart?

The American Heart Association suggests that late night eating might increase your risk of heart disease.  But how solid is the evidence?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
February 21, 2017
Episode #418

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Last month, the American Heart Association released a new scientific statement that seemed to suggest that eating late in the day is bad for your heart.  At least, that was the take home message that made the rounds on evening news and morning shows.  

The actual statement was a bit more cautious: “Allocating more calories earlier in the day might help reduce cardiovascular disease risk,” it read. But that was immediately followed by the disclaimer that “large studies tracking patients’ cardiovascular health over a long period are needed to show how meal timing and patterns impact disease risk.” In other words, this is still very much an unanswered question.

If you are someone who eats dinner at 6 pm every night and doesn’t eat again until breakfast, you might be feeling pretty smug right now. But that’s a pretty small group of people.  Most American households (including mine) eat dinner closer to 7 pm and their European counterparts tend to eat even later. And about half of adults (including this one) frequently snack between dinner and bedtime.  The question is whether we need to change our behavior in response to this latest research.

See also: Are We Programmed to Snack at Night?

What Does the Research on Meal Timing Show?

The first thing to understand is that this statement was not made in response to a new study. Rather, the authors looked back at studies that have already been done on different aspects of meal timing and meal frequency to see if they could draw any firm conclusions. And they really couldn’t—hence the disclaimer.

There were studies that found an association between late eating patterns and various cardiovascular risk factors—but, as the authors are careful to point out, correlation isn’t necessarily causation.  Just because two things happen together does not necessarily mean that one causes the other. The few studies that actually tested the impact of different meal timing on risk factors tended to be small and short in duration--not the kind of thing that you can really hang your hat on. 

Having read the entire review paper, which is available here if you’d like to take a look, my take away is a little different than what you may have seen on the evening news.  

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