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Is Eating Before Bed Really a Bad Idea?

Woman wearing pajamas sitting on bed, eating popcorn and watching a comedy movie on TV.

Eating before bed has long been associated with weight gain just as eating breakfast has been associated with weight loss. But is it really the timing of your meals that counts or the number of calories you eat? The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Weight Control Information Network claims that it doesn’t matter what time you eat, but rather how much you workout and how much you ingest. However, other researchers have found contradicting evidence. So which is it? Is eating before bed really a bad idea? Could it be why I am not losing weight? Or is this just one of the many nutrition myths we’ve all grown up with?

Eating Before Bed

In a study conducted by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that eating at night may indeed cause weight gain but not for factors we may have originally believed. They found that night-eaters tend to have 12% more daily calories than daytime eaters. This evidence is further supported by the International Journal of Obesity, which found that eating before bed usually results in binge-eating. From these studies, it would seem that night-eaters may struggle more with eating disorders.

a girl sits in bed in the evening, with a smartphone in her hand and eats strawberries, a girl in bed has sweets before going to bed.
They Found That Night-Eaters Tend To Have 12% More Daily Calories Than Daytime Eaters (Image Source: Shutterstock)

However, solving this mystery isn’t so cut and dry. Several other scientists believe that eating at night could lead to weight gain simply because it interferes with the body’s circadian rhythms. Insulin, for example, is monitored by this rhythm. Your body releases more insulin when you are asleep because it thinks you are fasting. If instead, you ate a large bedtime meal, your blood sugar levels will rise extremely high, causing fat accumulation, insulin resistance, and Type 2 diabetes over time.

Eating before bedtime can also disrupt your sleep in two ways, both of which are responsible for weight gain. The first is that your chances of being kept awake by acid reflux greatly increase after a late-night meal. The second is that your wildly changing blood sugar levels will also disrupt your sleep. A bad night’s sleep, whatever the cause, makes your body think it’s more hungry than it is, due to an increase of appetite-inducing hormones. Poor sleep is a huge factor in obesity and weight gain.

Best Food to Eat at Night

Although it seems you should generally try to avoid eating at nighttime, it’s important to always listen to what your body is telling you. What if one night you were starving? If that’s the case, you should definitely eat. If you force yourself to go hungry, you risk your blood sugar dropping so low that you have a greater chance of binging when you finally allow yourself food.

If you must eat at nighttime, it’s important that you grab a healthy snack. According to research, high protein snacks are the way to go because they keep your blood sugar more consistent. Snacks such as almonds, Greek yogurt, or vegetables in hummus are perfect because they give you lots of protein with just enough fat to keep you satiated.

Other foods that are great to eat are spinach, pistachios, edamame, tart cherry juice, chamomile tea, and oats overnight. These foods are not only nutritious for you but also stimulate chemicals that help you sleep deeper. Spinach, for example, is filled with magnesium, which acts as a muscle relaxer and helps you stay asleep longer. Pistachios and edamame are both a rich source of vitamin B6 which helps produce the sleep hormones serotonin and melatonin. Tart cherries are also believed to produce melatonin, since drinking their juice helped many insomniacs fall asleep. Chamomile tea helps your body release glycine, a muscle relaxer that gradually sedates you. Lastly, oats overnight is a great source of fiber for your body and is known to prevent blood sugar from rising too high. It’s believed that blood sugar surges actually drop melatonin, which is why eating too much before bed disrupts your sleep.

So, if you can’t control your hunger before bedtime, just make smart food choices and portion them out!

Foods to Avoid

One thing you should definitely avoid before bed is snack food. Unfortunately, late-night dining options are usually pretty limited. There’s a plethora of pizza delivery and 24-hour gas station snacks available, but not so many healthy choices. Many snack foods are high in fat and sugar and low in nutritional value. Besides leading to weight gain, eating an unhealthy diet can also make you feel sick and depressed. Since it’s especially hard to make healthy choices when you are over-tired, you may want to consider stocking up on some healthy options so that you aren’t tempted to binge when you get your next late-night craving. This will help you make mindful eating a habit.

Green and purple fresh juices or smoothies with fruit, greens, vegetables in wooden tray, top view, selective focus. Detox, dieting, clean eating, vegetarian, vegan, fitness, healthy lifestyle concept
Consider Stocking Up On Some Healthy Options So That You Aren’t Tempted To Binge (Image Source: Shutterstock)

If you are sensitive to caffeine, you might also want to cut out your afternoon cup of coffee. It takes your body approximately six hours to eliminate half of the caffeine you consume. Consider taking a walk around your office instead of grabbing more coffee when the afternoon slump hits you next time. Remember, consistent poor sleeping patterns are one of the biggest factors for weight gain. Caffeine content is also extremely high in chocolate. If you eat any chocolate before bed, keep your portions small.

You should also avoid eating large meals, high-fat foods, spicy foods, and high sugar foods before bed. All of these can cause indigestion, heartburn, or disrupt circadian rhythms, interfering with your sleep. Most of these foods are also high in calories—except not necessarily the spicy ones. This is another reason why you should avoid eating them! Whatever time of day you eat, always try to choose nutritiously balanced meals.

Ways to Gain Weight

In addition to choosing nutritiously balanced meals, also watch your snacking patterns. Whenever you feel a desire to snack, even if you’re reaching for healthy options, ask yourself, “Am I hungry? Or am I just reaching for food out of habit or because I’m depressed or bored?” Even eating too much healthy food is bad for your body. After all, a calorie surplus is all it takes to gain weight–it doesn’t matter if that food is french fries or sweet potatoes.

Woman is eating healthy lunch on dark background. Buddha bowl. Clean and balanced healthy food concept
Even Eating Too Much Healthy Food Is Bad For Your Body (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Working night shifts can also increase your risk of weight gain. Like eating too much, night shifts interrupt your regular sleep patterns. They also often cause you to eat more food—and more unhealthy food—because your appetite-regulating hormones are out of whack. Try to maintain a consistent schedule as much as possible whenever you can.

Also, unless you’re extremely hungry, really try to avoid bedtime meals. Although a direct correlation between midnight snacks and weight gain is uncertain, it does seem to influence other factors that cause weight gain. Some studies are still showing a direct correlation too, so it should be avoided whenever possible. One such study in PLOS Biology found that participants who ate a late-night meal, burned less fat at night. This link was found even though the participants exercised at the same intensity and ate the same calories as when they did not eat late at night. It seems that when the subjects ate later in the day, they had more carbohydrates available for use as energy in their system and didn’t need to burn as much stored fat when they slept. 

What Time to Stop Eating at Night

So is there an ideal time to stop eating during the day to ensure you avoid weight gain? As we saw above, it’s more important that we eat healthily and plan out our foods in advance—such as keeping nutritious snacks on hand. Therefore, if you eat more during the day, eat less at night. If you eat less during the day, you can feel free to eat a little more come nighttime.

Man eating asian food street local cafe, looking on watch.
It’s Generally Recommended That You Stop Eating 1.5-2 Hours Before Bed So That Your Body Can Actually Rest And Restore Itself (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Still, you should be careful that you don’t eat too close to bedtime. As we also saw, you don’t digest your food as well while you’re asleep. It’s generally recommended that you stop eating 1.5-2 hours before bed so that your body can actually rest and restore itself.

In addition, if you stop snacking at least an hour before bed, you may also reduce your risk of stroke by 66%. According to studies, it seems that this risk continues to drop by another 10% for every 20 minutes that you wait.

Although no one is completely sure why waiting to go to bed after eating lowers your stroke risk, previous studies have shown that acid reflux may cause sleep apnea. Unfortunately, sleep apnea is a risk factor for stroke.

How to Stop Eating at Night

If you have thrown off your body’s schedule and gotten used to eating every night, what do you do? How do you break the cycle and stop eating before bed?

Why Is Late Night Eating Bad For You? – Health Nucleus

Although the exact connection between sleeping and eating is uncertain, researchers know there is a link. For example, there’s a clear relationship between weight gain and loss of sleep. If you are tempted to run to your kitchen late at night, then, making sure you go to bed earlier and get lots of sleep, may help you be less likely to indulge in a midnight snack.

There really isn’t much known about night eating syndromes though. If getting more sleep does not help you, you should seek out your doctor. Your doctor may be able to identify a bigger health issue that is causing these impulses. Generally, he/she will complete a broad health evaluation that will change up your nutritional patterns and examines any possible mental disorders that could be exacerbating it. Many people have found that their eating patterns improve after they are able to identify the triggers that drive them to snack.

Bottom Line

Eating late at night might not be inherently bad, but research seems to only find negative associations with midnight snacking. Late-night eating may not directly result in weight gain, but it may significantly increase the chance of sleep disruption, acid reflux, or stroke. Seems to me, the risks outway the reward.