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Eating late at night is often associated with speedy weight gain and sleep disturbances, but is there any truth to this claim, or is it just an unfounded myth? Read on to learn more.
What Is Considered Late-Night Eating?
There is no strict definition of late-night eating, but for practical purposes, it can be defined as eating within 2 hours of going to bed.
Is What One Is Eating More Important Than When One Is Eating?
This depends on many factors, including a person’s sleep pattern, dietary habits, medications, and health conditions. (1) For most people, eating close to bedtime is a problem.
You tend to pick unhealthy foods and you are more likely to eat for entertainment, distraction, or habit, rather than hunger, when you eat late at night.
Can Eating Before Bedtime Lead to Weight Gain?
Again, this depends on many factors, but stopping eating at least 2 hours before bed has many benefits. When you stop eating at nighttime, you will consume fewer calories overall, again because late-night eating tends to be for reasons other than hunger.
When you eat close to bedtime and then again first thing in the morning, you are also having higher overall levels of insulin in your body, which signals the body to retain weight and can lead to increased overall hunger. (2)
Finally, less overall sleep can have a significant impact on weight because it increases the levels of cortisol, a key stress hormone in the body, which further elevates insulin levels, leading to weight gain. (3)
How Does Late-Night Eating Disrupt Digestion?
Digestion is a very active process and occurs best during states of rest or mild activity. In the first few hours after eating, the stomach acid (bile) breaks down the food, which is then passed into the small intestine. (4)
If you lay down to sleep soon after eating, you are more prone to acid reflux because you have lost the assistance of gravity in keeping food and stomach acid moving into the intestine, allowing it to more easily stay in the stomach or come up into the esophagus.
What Effect Does Late-Night Eating Have on Sleep Quality?
It can be hard to study the exact interactions between late-night eating and sleep quality, but one issue is clear – eating close to bedtime increases the risk of acid reflux and heartburn, which can show up as a burning sensation in the stomach or chest region, belching, and/or nausea. (5)
These symptoms can be worse with certain foods, including highly acidic or fatty foods, and can keep you up at night or significantly hamper sleep quality.
Does Late-Night Eating Lead to More Eating?
For most people, yes. Late-night eating is more commonly associated with high-calorie foods with lower nutritional value, such as commercial snack foods.
Further, the body’s release of insulin in response to the same meal is higher at nighttime than in the morning, leading to greater hunger levels and fat storage. (6)
Finally, if late-night eating is occurring for entertainment or other reasons that are not related to nutrition, then these calories are generally in excess of what is needed by the body.
How Much Gap Should Be Maintained Between Dinner and Bedtime?
To allow for digestion and a healthy balance of the body’s natural insulin levels, eating 3–4 hours before bedtime is a good idea.
For example, if your normal bedtime is 9:30 PM, being done with dinner by 6:30 PM allows plenty of time for digestion to contribute to a good night’s sleep, generally without leading to excessive hunger.
What Snacks Can Be Had Before Bed if One Is Hungry?
If significant hunger occurs before bed, an ideal snack would include some fat and protein (nuts and nut butters are great here), as well as complex carbohydrates (such as fiber-rich fruit or a slice of whole-grain bread). These snacks will stimulate signals that satisfy the hunger without causing a large release of insulin.
Two tablespoons of almond butter with a small apple or 1-ounce cheese with a few whole-grain crackers works well for late-night snacks.
Is It Advisable to Drink Warm Milk Before Bedtime?
There is no science to suggest that warm milk before bedtime is helpful, though some people still like to head to bed with a warm drink. If this is you, you might consider an alternative, such as a nighttime tea.
Bedtime rituals in adults, as in children, can be helpful, but if you struggle with your weight, you may want to switch the bedtime milk to a noncaloric drink and continue to enjoy your ritual without the calories.
What Important Points Should Be Kept in Mind About Late-Night Eating?
- If late-night eating has become a habit of yours, ask yourself where this compulsion is stemming from? Are you eating from hunger? Or due to habit or boredom or for entertainment? If you aren’t hungry, it’s advisable to find another strategy, rather than eating.
- Late-night bingeing on unhealthy snacks is a shortcut to undue weight gain and can even hamper your sleep quality by overworking the digestive system. So, if you struggle with hunger late at night, consider speaking with a nutritionist about better strategies to manage this.
- If you have health conditions that require medications at nighttime or in the evening, including insulin for people with diabetes, speak with your Healthcare Provider before making any changes to your late-night eating habits.
Many people do gain weight on account of their late-night snacking, but that has more to do with what and how much they are eating rather than when they are eating.
When you consume large, high-calorie meals, it is recommended to go for a walk thereafter as the movement helps the stomach to digest the food and burn some of the calories.
Going to bed right after eating such heavy foods can make it harder for the stomach to digest them. The hampered digestion can trigger flatulence and acid reflux during the night, leading to poor sleep.
Plus, piling on the calories will inadvertently lead to weight gain. This is especially the case if you indulge in overeating, stress eating, or eating out of boredom when your body doesn’t really need the calories but you keep consuming them. (7)
The goal is to eat when you actually feel hungry and eat just enough to satisfy your appetite but not overload your system. If you starve yourself the whole day, you are more likely to overeat at night, so avoid doing that. Instead of gorging on high-calorie foods at night, choose small portions of single-nutrient foods or mixed meals that have a low calorie count.