(HealthDay is the new name for HealthScoutNews.)
FRIDAY, July 11, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- It's a prime piece of conventional wisdom: Eat right before you go to bed and you'll get fat.
But new research suggests that late eaters are no more likely to be overweight than anyone else. It's what you consume the rest of the day -- especially in the morning -- that counts.
Americans who regularly skip breakfast are 4.5 times more likely to be fat, researchers found. But, in good news for the nibblers among us, those who eat four or more meals a day are actually on the thinner side.
"We tend to eat because of external cues instead of internal cues -- we eat until the plate's clean. If the plate has a lot less food on it, perhaps you'll be eating less," says Ruth Kava, director of nutrition with the American Council on Science and Health.
Researchers launched their study because experts don't fully understand how eating habits -- such as the timing and frequency of meals -- are tied to obesity, says study co-author Yunsheng Ma, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
The researchers examined a national cholesterol study that took place from 1994 to 1998. A total of 499 people reported five times a year on what they ate over 24 hours.
The findings of the study appear in the current issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Ma and his colleagues found people who ate more than three times a day were about half as likely to be fat as those who ate three or fewer times a day. Ma suspects the difference may have something to do with fewer spikes in blood sugar levels among the frequent eaters.
Insulin levels go up when blood sugar rises, contributing to hunger and the buildup of fat, Ma says. Similar factors may be at work among those who frequently eat breakfast or dinner away from home, he says. The study found they were 4.5 times more likely to be fat.
Someone who eats breakfast at home might settle for a small, convenient meal, Kava says. "But if you go out, there's all kinds of tempting things like bacon and eggs and hash browns. Maybe you tend to indulge a little bit more. You don't have to do the work or clean up."
And what about the link between skipping breakfast and tipping the scales?
"You have not broken the fast soon enough to only need a moderate amount of calories," says Gail Frank, a professor of nutrition at California State University at Long Beach and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "You are starving. How does the normal person respond? They eat, and they keep eating to compensate."
As for the study's rebuttal of the time-honored belief in the fattening properties of late-night meals, Ma says more research is needed to confirm that finding.
But it makes sense, Frank says, and counteracts the "myth" about the hazards of midnight munching.
The body continues digesting through the night, she says, even when people are asleep and not active. "The body doesn't know when the lights go off," she says.