Nothing beats a late-night snack. Whether it’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a generous bowl of ice cream, there’s something about eating before bed that seems to lure us in. Maybe you’re hungry during those late hours of the night, or perhaps it’s just a habit that’s hard to kick — no matter the reason, we’ve all been there.
Most of us have been told that eating before bed is an unhealthy endeavor. Rumors suggest it can lead to weight gain, ruin your sleep quality, and wreak havoc on your circadian rhythms. But others claim that eating before bed actually supports weight loss.
So what’s the truth and what’s nothing more than health gossip? As is the case for so many health-related topics, it all comes down to the individual. Let’s take a deeper look at late-night eating to determine what exactly it is, why it’s controversial, and which of us (if any) can eat in the middle of the night, guilt-free.
The Health Effects of Eating Before Bed Are Disputed
Whether or not you should eat before bed has been a hot-button nutrition topic for years.
Conventional wisdom suggests eating before bed will cause you to gain weight because your metabolism slows down when you sleep. Food isn’t converted into energy as quickly, nitrogenous waste products aren’t eliminated, and your body simply doesn’t need all that fuel in a state of rest. This means any lingering or undigested calories are stored as fat instead of being burned as carbs.
Yet many nutritionists and dietitians claim that eating before bed is perfectly fine. Some even suggest it can lead to weight loss or better sleep, though only by utilizing a sleep tracker will you know if this is true for you. Without a definitive answer from nutrition science, most of us are left confused and unsure of the implications of our late-night eating habit for our health. So what’s the truth? Unfortunately, it’s tough to know.
The real issue stems from research that supports both sides of this sustenance squabble. Truth be told, your metabolic rate (metabolism) doesn’t slow down when you go to sleep. It generally stays the same as during the day because your body still requires lots of energy in a state of rest. There also doesn’t seem to be any proof to support the idea that calories matter more before bed. They’re counted the same at night as they would be any other time of day.
Yet despite these facts, several studies still link eating before bed to weight gain. So why might this be? The truth may surprise you.
The Implications of Eating Before Bed
There’s no evidence to suggest eating before bed is an unhealthy habit in itself. It won’t cause weight gain or give you a dose of terrible nightmares (hopefully). But research does suggest that eating before bed may lead to other unhealthy habits that are likely to cause weight gain. And the reason for this is simpler than one might assume.
As obvious as it may seem, snacking before bed is essentially the equivalent of eating an extra meal and, as a result, extra calories. For most of us, a bedtime snack would essentially push our calorie intake over the recommended daily allowance.
Add in the fact that most of us are eating while watching TV or lounging around, and suddenly it makes sense that we could easily gain weight. Eating extra food without burning the extra calories is the quintessential recipe for weight gain.
Yet, this isn’t the only reason you might gain weight. Some of us may eat before bed due to extreme hunger caused by not eating enough throughout the day. We may compensate by cooking up a big meal that leads to being too full to want breakfast the next morning, and the cycle continues. While eating before bed may not be unhealthy in itself, doing so can disrupt your normal eating schedule, increase the likelihood of adopting poor eating habits, and lead to weight gain over time.
For a vast majority of us, eating at night doesn’t cause weight gain because it’s associated with slowed metabolism or with storing calories as body fat. Instead, it simply leads to weight gain as a result of unhealthy habits that are causing the late-night snacking in the first place.
The Other Implications of Eating Before Bed
Snacking before bed is a poor decision for reasons beyond weight gain. Those who suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) have a tendency to suffer more if they choose to eat at night.
GERD is the process by which stomach acid splashes back into your throat on a consistent basis. (If it happens from time to time, we call it acid reflux). Symptoms of GERD can include heartburn, difficulty swallowing, or even a lump in the throat.
When you decide to eat that extra meal right before bed, GERD can become a bigger issue because of your full stomach. Lying down with a full belly makes it easier for stomach acid to splash into your throat. Doctors, therefore, recommend avoiding food within three hours of bedtime if you normally experience GERD.
The Benefits of Eating Before Bed
Now that we’ve discussed the many reasons you may want to avoid eating before bed, let’s instead look at the benefits of indulging in a late-night bite.
A Better Night’s Sleep
Believe it or not, many people actually report sleeping better when eating a snack just before bed. This may be because the extra food curbs the risk of waking up hungry.
As we’ve previously mentioned, eating at night won’t cause weight gain if you’re not eating extra calories throughout the day. So, eating a small, healthy snack with fewer calories may in-fact help you sleep better.
Stabilized Blood Sugar
Your liver produces extra blood sugar to provide you with a boost of energy when you wake in the morning (it’s one of the many ways you can wake up easier). While this process means little to those without diabetes, those who do suffer from blood sugar issues can’t produce enough insulin to remove excess blood sugar from the body. As a result, those with diabetes commonly wake up with high blood sugar even if they haven’t eaten.
Some research has suggested that eating before bed can prevent major shifts in blood pressure by providing extra energy that your body will use in the morning. Think of the food you eat right before bed as the fuel your liver would otherwise be required to produce. Your liver doesn’t have to do so because you’ve already consumed the energy you need to start the day.
With that said, anyone suffering from diabetes or blood sugar irregularities should consult a doctor or dietitian to determine if a snack before bed is the right move.
Increased Weight Loss
Just as some research suggests pre-bed snacking can lead to weight gain, evidence that suggests the opposite is plentiful as well. The reason for this is primarily because those who eat a large meal for dinner seem to benefit from one more snack just before bed as opposed to eating a lot of food before bed. The small snack may help late-night eaters feel satisfied, thus ensuring they don’t eat more food later.
What to Eat Before Bed
Now that we’ve covered the benefits of eating before bed, let’s wrap things up by discussing what foods you should eat before bed (if you choose to do so).
Keep Away From Desserts & Junk Food
It’s pretty common knowledge these days, but eating desserts or junk food of any kind before bed is an unhealthy habit. This is due to the complex array of unhealthy fats and added sugars that can trigger cravings or other poor eating habits. These types of food also make it extremely easy to exceed your daily caloric limits and gain weight along the way.
Look for Carbs Combined With Protein and Fat
The best foods to consume before bed combine carbs with either protein or fats. Look for complex carbs like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains rather than the simple sugars found in candy and sweets.
Eating carbs with a high glycemic index can also help you fall asleep because these healthy carbs work to transport the amino acid tryptophan, which converts into a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep.
Eating Before Bed: The Definitive Answer
As it turns out, eating before bed is not as unhealthy as so many assume it to be. But keep in mind that this only remains true so long as your other pre-bed habits are healthy and positive. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to avoid eating foods late into the night if you’re trying to maintain a healthy eating schedule and avoid potential cravings.
If you happen to find yourself hungry when the sun goes down, seek out foods that include complex carbs and proteins or fats, and decrease your daytime calorie intake accordingly. For most of us, a healthy snack at night won’t interrupt a good night’s sleep.