Is 5pm the new 7pm? Why earlier dinner is better for you

As 4-7pm dinner bookings are on the rise in restaurants across Australia, it turns out it’s not just a trending habit – there are actually health benefits to eating early.

An early dinner was once seen as the domain of retirees and those with young children, but new research suggests there may be a few perks in moving forward our evening meal we can all benefit from.

A Harvard Medical School study has identified 5pm could be the sweet spot when it comes to dinner time.

The study examined 16 patients whose body-mass index fell in the overweight or obese range, comparing the impact when they ate their last meal of the day at 5pm to when they ate at 9pm.

Researchers found that eating later affected hunger levels and the appetite-regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin.

It also impacted the way calories were burned and the way fat was stored.

So, is it time to follow your grandmother’s lead and sit down for an early dinner?

How when we eat impacts the way we function

Our circadian rhythm runs to a 24-hour cycle and controls every physiological function in our body – including processing our food.

So, what happens when we eat later?

Australian Catholic University Exercise and Nutrition Program research fellow Dr Evelyn Parr says we are more insulin resistant at the end of the day.

“What that means is if we eat something with a lot of carbohydrate content and there’s a lot of glucose (the body’s main source of energy) circulating, the insulin that we release, which takes glucose out of the blood stream, is not as responsive to that meal,” Dr Parr says.

This can impact weight and also sleep.

“The later we eat, the closer we are to the time melatonin is being released by our body,” Dr Parr says.

“That’s going to stimulate other hormones, which are counterproductive in terms of the processing of food.

“So generally, the earlier that we eat, the better.”

Benefits of an early dinner time

An early dinner time helps the body to fast, which brings a number of health benefits.

Research has found that following a time-restricted feeding schedule decreases body fat, insulin resistance, hyperlipidemia, and inflammation.

“We’re seeing that if we have lower glucose levels overnight, we tend to have a better metabolic profile in terms of cardiovascular disease and obesity,” Dr Parr says.

It’s also worth considering if you’re trying to lose weight.

Dr Parr says a number of studies have found that there tends to be weight loss associated with the combination of restricted energy intake and an earlier eating time.

“There does seem to be a tendency for greater weight loss with an earlier dinner,” she says.

How to make an early dinner time work

A hurdle that arises from having dinner quite early is feeling hungry later on.

Dietitian and nutritionist Alice Bleathman says to look at what’s on your plate.

“Ensure the meal is balanced with fats, proteins and carbs as this balance of macronutrients is going to keep you satisfied and satiated for longer compared to a meal with only one or two of them,” Alice says.

“The other thing that may be considered is the fibre content of the meal.

“Meals higher in fibre are generally digested at a slower rate and therefore tend to keep us fuller for longer.”

For foods that help with longer satiety, Alice says to consider eating:

  • Potatoes
  • Brown rice
  • Chicken/red meat
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Nuts/seeds
  • Legumes/beans
  • Oats

Ultimately, one of the most important things is to adopt a dinner time that you’re going to be able to stick to in the long term.

If 5pm doesn’t work for you, try to eat as early as possible instead.

You may even be able to take advantage of an early bird special or two.

Written by Tania Gomez.