Fast Food: A Nighttime Trend?

Dietitians say late-night trips to the local drive-through may have an impact on our waistlines.

By Katherine Kam
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Craving a burrito at 11 p.m.? Taco Bell stands ready to serve you a "Fourthmeal," which it advertises as "the meal between dinner and breakfast."

We're a mobile, wired nation that works and eats at all hours -- and the fast-food giants have noticed.

"We saw a skewing toward a 24-7 society," says Taco Bell spokesman Will Bortz. As a result, Taco Bell and other fast-food restaurants have created ad campaigns to promote eating late in the evening and well into the darkest of night.

But in a nation struggling with obesity, overdoing the late-night fast food may wreak havoc with our waistlines and health. "When we look at why certain people are overweight or really have trouble losing weight, you look at your environment," says American Dietetic Association (ADA) spokeswoman Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD. "Having some of these things available 24-7 for some people makes it more challenging."

Fast Food: A Big Business

In 2005, Americans spent roughly $127 billion at quick-service restaurants, which include fast food, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant research and consulting firm. Eric Schlosser, author of the 2001 book Fast Food Nation, estimates that one-quarter of U.S. adults visit a fast-food restaurant on a typical day.

The late night opens a whole new frontier for profits, says Gregg Cebrzynski, a marketing editor who tracks trends for Nation's Restaurant News. Chains are battling it out for customers. "There's this whole idea that late night and early morning sales is what they really have to go after," he says.

In April, Taco Bell began promoting Fourthmeals at its restaurants, many of which stay open until 1 a.m. or later. In August, McDonald's aimed a new late-night campaign at young people who live on a steady diet of text messaging. In selected markets, McDonald's allows customers to sign up via the Internet to have late-night deals text-messaged right to their cell phones. And of course, Wendy's runs TV commercials that feature raccoons on late-night food forages that lead them straight to the burger chain.

More and more, fast-food restaurants that keep traditional 6 to 10 p.m. dinner hours are going the way of the carhop. Many chains, including McDonald's, Wendy's, and Taco Bell, have extended their evening hours or stay open 24 hours, sometimes with a drive-through window.

Why Late-Night Eating?

"Because of the way people work these days -- many out of their homes, many with different schedules -- the traditional 9-to-5 day has morphed into a 12-noon-to-midnight day," Cebrzynski says.

That's also true for college students, dietitians say. Many attend class during the day, work an evening job, and pick up fast food when they clock out. "They're looking for something fast and inexpensive, and I'm not always sure that nutrition is on the forefront of their minds," says ADA spokeswoman Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD.

But there are other reasons for late fast-food jaunts, she adds. "People tend to consume more between the hours of 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. because that's their downtime -- their time to unwind. I think a lot of times, sitting in front of the TV equates with eating."

Night owls may also binge on fast food out of loneliness or for emotional reasons, including stress or boredom. "If you're not able to sleep or you're unhappy, food is very satisfying, calming and reassuring," Jamieson-Petonic says. "For some people, it can become a behavior to deal with things."

Is Late Eating a Problem?

Will eating late make people gain more weight? "That's more of a nutritional myth," says Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD. She is an ADA spokeswoman who's also a dietitian in private practice in Denver. Jamieson-Petonic agrees. "However you get your calories over the day is fine."

"It's total calories in the day that would lead to weight gain -- calories in vs. calories out," Farrell says.

If you reach your calorie limit and add one extra late-night run per week for a small hamburger, medium fries, and a chocolate shake, you've boosted your caloric intake by 1,080 calories a week, Jamieson-Petonic says. That translates into more than a 1-pound weight gain per month and a hefty 16 extra pounds in one year. "Those calories do add up."

Gaining Control

"There's nothing wrong with eating late if you're really hungry," Jamieson-Petonic says. If you're genuinely hungry, a bowl of cereal late at night can be satisfying, she says.

But too often, people set themselves up by skimping on breakfast and lunch and becoming ravenous in the evening, Farrell says. When they're hungry and tired at the end of the day, they're more likely to crave fattier foods -- including fast foods -- as a dinner or midnight snack, she says. "The later that a person eats, you tend to notice that the food choices aren't always the healthiest."