Fast Food: A Nighttime Trend? (cont.)

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.