Is late-night eating linked to cancer? A doctor breaks it down

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Is eating late at night bad for you? A doctor weighs in. (Image: stockstudioX/E+/GettyImages)

Most of us have been there on occasion — cramming in a few slices of pizza during the hours of, say, midnight to 3 a.m. before collapsing in bed. We know that’s not the healthiest behavior, but a recent study has found that there may be more serious outcomes than just regretting that third slice.

The International Journal of Cancer published a July 2018 study that found that late-night eating may be associated with an increased risk of cancer. Participants in the study out of Spain who waited two or more hours to sleep after eating had a 20 percent reduced breast and prostate cancer risk when compared to those who hit the sack directly after dinner.

But before we swear off late-night pie, we spoke to Denver-based Mark Levandovsky, M.D., who specializes in internal medicine, medical oncology and hematology. “It makes a lot of sense to refrain from eating at least three hours before bedtime — although longer is likely better,” says Dr. Levandovsky.

During the day, he says, when you’re running around using your muscles, your energy expenditures are high and calories are processed for your body to use. During the night when you’re sleeping, your body goes into hibernation mode. Metabolism slows down and calories are stored as fat rather than processed for energy.

“Our bodies don’t have a restriction on the [amount of fat it’s able to store], therefore late caloric excesses shift us toward obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, even cancer,” Levandovsky says. “Refraining from calorie intake several hours before bedtime enables us to maintain energy levels by burning stored (sugars) and mobilizing fat stores.”

Levandovsky suspects, however, that late-night eating’s link to cancer is part of a larger picture. “Frequent late-night eating may be an indication that there are other things going awry,” he says. If you’re eating late at night and otherwise the very picture of health, he’s not worried. But in his practice he typically sees people whose lifestyle habits may also include poor diets, excess alcohol, smoking, no exercise and lots of stress.

“[This type of lifestyle] is incredibly common, and that’s the reason why some studies indicate that [much] of what kills us is preventable and avoidable,” Dr. Levandovsky says. “If we take late-night eating on its own, it’s not a big deal — the whole portrait is an issue.” And when it comes to studying the links between cancer and lifestyle choices, it’s very hard to control for all those things, he says. More research is needed to fully understand the connection.

“It’s important to realize how much power and control we have (over our health),” Dr. Levandovsky says. “[Much of] what we eventually succumb to takes decades to develop, and it’s empowering to recognize that we can change.”

But if you must have something to eat at midnight? In addition to when you’re eating, it also matters what you’re eating late. “The heavier or denser the food one consumes (like meats or fats), the longer it takes to digest,” Dr. Levandovsky says.

He suggests something light and healthy, such as a piece of fruit or vegetables — even nuts. Those options will digest much faster and more efficiently then refined carbs, such as those found in cookies, fat and protein — meaning it’s less likely to be stored, causing health complications later.

What Do YOU Think?

Do you often eat late at night? Do you have areas of your lifestyle you’d like to improve? Tell us about them in the comments below!

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