This question comes up a lot from my clients and from individuals attending my workshops. It seems to have morphed from another myth or food rule that states, “it’s not okay to eat after 7 pm”.
The short answer for both of these statements is False! There are many interesting theories and anecdotal evidence about this idea for weight loss. But, let’s understand where these myths come from and why they seem to work (at least at first).
The “real” problem often begins with over-eating at night when an individual is tired, bored, stressed, or overly hungry. This is especially true for the person who “diets at breakfast, diets at lunch and blows it at night.” By this time, cravings (usually for carbohydrate-containing foods) become very intense and they “give in” to eating, and often overeating, highly palatable, convenient, serotonin-producing, processed snack foods. Food rules, like “don’t eat after 7 pm” provide structure and and a sense of control when the person feels “out of control.”
So, what are food rules? Food rules often develop along with sincere efforts at eating healthy. Having a list of foods that state “eat this and don’t eat that” or labeling foods “good” vs “bad”, healthy/unhealthy, fattening/nonfattening, etc. provide very clear structure for an individual who is trying to lose weight. Basically, when a person can’t trust themselves with their eating and weight, they turn to something or someone else, like a “diet” or an “expert” with a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” that they believe they can trust.
Although food rules are meant to be helpful, they often backfire. When an individual follows a rule like “stop eating carbs at night” or “don’t eat after 7 pm”, and they lose weight, it’s easy to believe that the real culprit to their excess weight was because “carbs are bad” or that “late-night eating leads to weight gain.” Unfortunately, when the real problem of under-eating or emotional eating hasn’t been addressed, the individual will likely “give in” and break the rule. Since deprivation can increase desire, this may also contribute to overeating the forbidden food or eating at the forbidden time.
Subsequently, feelings of guilt or shame result because they weren’t able to “follow the rules” which again leads to more overeating…and more self-doubt. Sadly, the cycle continues when the person tries to regain control with even more “structure” – a stricter diet, more food rules, another “expert”, etc etc.
Most would proclaim they want to stop this food fight, but having unconditional permission to eat (at any time of the day) feels very scary. The only way to reduce fears of food is to discover the root cause of behaviors that may be leading to excess weight gain and develop strategies that address those behaviors. For some, that may be giving themselves permission to eat enough earlier in the day or it may be legalizing food and trusting that a healthy balance is achievable.
In either case, this usually means getting the appropriate support for positive behavior change with food, eating and weight. It may also mean setting aside unrealistic “rules” about weight and weight loss. Learning to trust yourself (and your body) with food and eating, rather than a diet, a food rule or a so-called “expert”, may be the real answer to a nourishing and healthy relationship with food, eating and weight.