Thursday, September 24, 2009

Afternoon delight: why it makes sense
to eat dinner early in the day

194 pounds
There was a story in USA Today a few hours ago about the oldest living man in the world. At 113 years old, Walter Breuning (pictured here) attributes his longevity to the fact that he only eats two meals a day: breakfast and lunch.

On the one hand, I'm opposed to anyone denying themselves food or skipping meals. On the other hand, I wonder if old Walter might be right about one thing—it makes more sense to eat your biggest meals earlier in the day than at the end of it. I'm not advocating cutting evening meals or snacks because those are essential, despite Walter's assertion. (It's unhealthy to skip ANY meal because your metabolism slows, your body starts storing fat, and you miss the carbs necessary for fuel and in order to stabilize blood sugar.) But I do wonder if it's unwise to eat our biggest meal towards the end of the day.

For years, my husband and I have eaten our dinners late at night—never before six-thirty and often closer to eight o'clock at night. I always suspected that this wasn't the ideal way to do it, but we're night people. And since we stay up late, it seemed to make sense to eat later. But over the past few years, I've been re-thinking that approach.

My new approach to "dinner" started in the summer of 2007. Like many academics, my weight sometimes fluctuates up a few pounds during the school year and then drops in the summer because I have more time to cook healthy meals and exercise when classes are not in session. The 2006-07 school was no different in that regard. I had probably gained somewhere between two and five pounds during the school year and wanted to make sure that I didn't carry it over to the next fall. Because I always like to try new ways to lose weight without dieting, I proposed that we start eating our big meal of the day, our "dinner," during the afternoon—between two and four—rather than later at night. We were still eating something else in the evenings, but we were eating lighter meals at night—salads, soup, sandwiches. The kind of thing most people normally eat at lunch.

The consequences of this decision were two-fold: 1) I got more work done in the time leading up to two o'clock because I knew we'd be taking a long break to cook and eat, and 2) I lost the few pounds I had gained during the school year in no time. Like I said, it's normal for me to lose a few pounds over the summer, but I really believe that I ate less over the course of the day when we had our biggest meal in the afternoon, which might be why the pounds dropped so quickly.

Part of the problem for me when I eat dinner later in the evening is psychological. In my head, I know that dinner is supposed to be the last meal of the day, and because of that, I overcompensate by eating as much as I can. It's the same thing you always hear about cavemen—they would eat whatever they could get their hands on because they didn't know when their next meal would be. (Supposedly that's why we all have an inherent desire to overeat). And that's definitely what I'm like at dinner—sometimes it seems as if I'm getting ready to hibernate, collecting as many nuts and twigs as I can fit inside my swollen mouth. In this way, I'm the the kind of person who almost always goes back for seconds. I've tried taking a bigger first portion, but that doesn't keep me from getting seconds. I've tried taking smaller portions, and I've even tried that trick of putting my food on a smaller plate. But when I take tiny portions, I go back even more! Nothing seems to keep me from overeating at dinner—even though most of the time I only overeat a little bit.

But when I move "dinner" to two-o'clock in the afternoon, everything is different. I never worry about it being the last meal of the day because I know that there's still more to come. And if I'm eating something I absolutely love and want more of, I tell myself that I can have more later in the day, making the idea of a second serving feel more unnecessary and less like it's my last chance.

It also can't hurt that when we eat in the middle of the afternoon, we're more likely to exercise afterwards. When we used to eat a late dinner, we almost never did anything athletic once the dishes we're cleared. In fact, it was just the opposite: after a big meal, we usually were too tired and lethargic to do anything more taxing than work on the computer, read, or watch television.

Because it worked so well the first time, we have gone back to eating our main meal in the afternoon every summer since then, and I am convinced I eat less—at "dinner" and all day long—when we do this. And if you think about it, this is how people eat in countries like Spain: they have a big, filling meal in the afternoon, take a siesta, and then get back to work. Sounds like the perfect day to me!

I imagine that when most of you read this, you will think, Great, but I don't want to be at work that late! That's not really surprising since it's not unusual to see Americans trying to get to their jobs really early in the morning so they can be finished with work as soon as possible. And maybe therein lies another part of our problem in America . . . we look at work as something to "get through" rather than something to enjoy. If we didn't dread working so much, maybe we also wouldn't need to eat so much when we're finished with it.

Of course, it's hard for us to eat dinner at two o'clock while school is in session, and I know it's even more difficult for those of you who work nine-to-five jobs all year long. But that doesn't mean that eating a dinner-like meal earlier is impossible. When Dave and I are on campus all day, we try to eat as soon as we get home—as close to five as possible. (And one of the ways we accomplish this is by cooking meals that last more than one day—as I discussed in my "Nothing beats a home-cooked meal" post.) Another option is to eat a big lunch at work, especially if you have to go out to eat. Lots of people indulge when they dine out during the workday, and if you're that kind of person, it makes sense to have that be your biggest meal of the day. After all, the Spanish have been doing it for years. Why not us?

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