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No link between late-night eating and child obesity: study

A new study found no reason to conclude that children who eat later at night are at greater risk of obesity than children who eat during the day, contrary to previous evidence.

Child, girl eating dinner, messy plate
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A team of researchers from Britain and the Netherlands examined data from a large survey of eating habits among adults and children in the United Kingdom, called the National Diet and Nutrition Survey Rolling Programme.

They looked at the eating habits of 1,620 children split into two groups — 768 children were 4-10 years old, and 852 children were 11-18 years old. The surveys were collected between 2008 and 2012. Six percent of the boys ate their meals after 8 p.m., as did nine percent of the girls surveyed.

The group of late-evening eaters was relatively small, but still, the researchers found that the children in both groups who eat dinner between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. were no more likely to be overweight than children who eat before 8 p.m. They published their findings this week in the peer-reviewed British Journal of Nutrition.

These findings seem to fly in the face of several previously published studies — and they even contradict the hypothesis the researchers had when they began this study.

The team noted in their paper, "our results do not support our original hypothesis that children with a later evening meal time have a greater risk of being overweight and/or obese, have higher daily intakes of energy and have poorer quality of diet."

The researchers also noted that their study highlights the need for more research into how the timing of meals affects weight.

"Alongside changes in dietary quality and levels of physical activity, meal timing is one of many possible factors that has been suggested as influencing the trends in weight gain seen in children in the UK," said study co-author Gerda Pot, a researcher at both King's College London and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. "However, the significance of its role is under-researched."

Studies published in 2009, 2011, and 2013, among others, all suggested that eating later in the day may lead to weight gain or inhibit weight loss. The exact reasons for that are unclear, but there are some theories.

One notion holds that people who eat later in the day have less time to burn off the meal before going to bed. Other theories revolve around the body's natural rhythms. It is possible that eating late at night might throw the body out of sync with a daily rhythm, known as the Circadian rhythm, as NPR reported in 2015.

But as Vox reported in February, "science on timing of meals is still pretty preliminary and limited."

This current study has a few important limitations of its own. First, it's a study of children — results could differ among an adult population. Second, because it was a survey, there is the possibility that participants did not accurately report what children were eating.

The researchers said they plan next to study how sleep patterns and breakfast choices affect overall dietary quality, and weight.