Tuesday 15 October 2019

By eating too late, and snacking before bed, we could be risking our health

Thanks to longer working hours and changing family patterns, the 5pm dinner is a thing of the past for most of us. But by eating too late, and snacking before bed, we could be risking our health

Eating less than two hours before bed may increase your cancer risk
Eating less than two hours before bed may increase your cancer risk

Maria Lally

We've all done it: arrived home late from work or spent a couple of hours battling to get young children into bed (or both), before finally settling down to a 9.30pm dinner. Or treated ourselves to an 11pm snack, just because.

But according to a new study evening snacking and eating dinner too late can increase the risk of breast and prostate cancer, by disrupting the body's internal clock and metabolism.

A team of scientists from the Institute for Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) found that people who regularly eat less than two hours before bed have a 25pc raised risk of breast and prostate cancer.

"Our study concludes that adherence to diurnal eating patterns is associated with a lower risk of cancer," says Dr Manolis Kogevinas, who led the study, that was published in the International Journal of Cancer. He says his team's findings highlight the importance of circadian rhythms on diet and cancer.

The study found people who had cancer were more likely to be evening snackers, even when taking into account other factors like age, diet and sleeping patterns.

The news will come as no surprise to those who have previously pointed out the risks of shift work: several major studies have found that nurses and aircraft staff have a higher risk of cancer because, among other factors, certain types of cancer are linked to hormonal cues which can become disrupted when the body's circadian rhythm (its internal clock that tells us when it's day or night) is also disrupted.

So, where are we going wrong with dinner (and how can we make it right)?

Eating too late

In a culture of long working hours and busy lives, it's little wonder the 5pm family dinner is a rarity in most homes. But as this study shows, the timing of our meals can be crucial to health: one study from the University of Pennsylvania found that late night snacking can increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease, by raising glucose, insulin and cholesterol levels.

"Eating late can also impact on digestion and trigger IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and make for an uncomfortable nights sleep," says London-based nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert, author of Re-Nourish.

"Modern life is busy and it's not always possible to eat at 5pm or 6pm, when many of us are still at work or just leaving," says dietitian Helen Bond. "But trying to bring your dinner forward by just an hour can make a big difference." Which brings us onto the next point...

Being unprepared

Helen says one of the main reasons many of us eat dinner so late is because we're not prepared: "I hear stories of people arriving home late, tired and hungry to an empty fridge and resorting to quick, processed foods that leave them feeling even more hungry which then leads to evening snacking.

If you prep, you'll eat earlier and healthier, so it's doubly beneficial to health. Batch cook at weekends, or on the evenings you have more time, and freeze meals. Or get a slow cooker so you have something filling, healthy and nutritious waiting for you when you get home."

Low-calorie dinner

"Another thing I see a lot of is people eating a too-small dinner," says Rhiannon, "and then they end up snacking on junk all evening to make up for it. So make sure you eat enough at dinner so you don't need to eat later on, right up until bedtime. A really simple way of gauging the size of your plate is to make use of your hands. As a general rule have one palm sized portion of protein (e.g. chicken or fish), one handful of carbohydrate (e.g. rice, oats, starchy vegetables), two handfuls of non-starchy vegetables (broccoli, spinach and pepper) and one thumb of healthy fats (olive oil, butter, coconut oil and nut butter).

Snacking for no reason

Lastly, Helen Bond says if you're following all of the above advice and you still find yourself reaching for a post-dinner Magnum, you need to ask yourself why: "The time between dinner and bed is often the danger period when it comes to mindless snacking and drinking alcohol," she says. "But if you're eating out of anything other than proper hunger, in a way you're self-harming with food because all those processed, sugary calories are harmful to your overall health, as this study clearly shows. Is it because you're bored, or stressed, tired or using food as a distraction, comfort or coping strategy? Is it simply habitual and do you eat post-dinner snacks purely out of habit? If so, every time you go to snack ask yourself why. You don't have to deprive yourself - if you want chocolate, have it after lunch. Bt try not to eat anything for at least three hours before bed to give your digestion a rest and your health a boost."

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