Late-night eating has long been blamed for insomnia, weight gain, digestive distress and other health complaints. Most dieters would rather starve than eat a meal or snack after 8 p.m. While it's true that meal timing matters, a late dinner won't necessarily blow your diet or affect your sleep. Eating before bedtime can actually bring you closer to your health goal, whether it's weight loss, muscle growth or enhanced physical performance.
Late-night eating won’t necessarily affect your sleep or your waistline. It all comes down to what you eat. High-protein foods will fuel your muscles and keep your metabolism up while increasing satiety.
Benefits of Eating Before Bedtime
When you're working out hard, your muscles need a constant source of fuel to grow and recover from training. If you skip dinner or go long hours without eating, your body will start to break down muscle protein. This can slow down the recovery process and lead to muscle loss.
A high-protein snack, such as cottage cheese or Greek yogurt, will fuel your muscles over several hours. Contrary to popular belief, the human body doesn't shut off at night; it actually burns calories 24/7. Furthermore, it produces testosterone and growth hormones during sleep. Your brain works too, consolidating the information that has been collected throughout the day. All of these processes require energy.
Eating before bedtime may help with weight loss too. In a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, active college-aged men who consumed whey protein or casein 30 minutes before sleep had a higher resting metabolic rate the next morning compared to those who either skipped dinner or ate carbs alone.
According to The Journal of Nutrition, eating high-protein foods at bedtime increases muscle protein synthesis, leading to hypertrophy and strength gains. This translates into enhanced exercise performance. Research shows that nighttime consumption of small nutritious meals is beneficial for cardiovascular health and body composition.
Dangers of Late-Night Eating
Despite these claims, not everyone agrees that late-night eating is a good thing. According to New York physician, Dr. Jamie A. Koufman, a specialist in acid reflux, this habit may trigger heartburn and digestive problems. Koufman recommends eating at least three hours before bedtime in order to prevent these issues.
A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Obesity suggests that levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin are higher in the evening and during times of stress. Basically, there's a greater risk of overeating late at night, which can lead to weight gain and affect overall health.
Late-night eating has also been linked to decreased glucose tolerance, reduced metabolic rate and poor metabolic health. This means that it may increase your risk of diabetes, insulin resistance and heart disease in the long run. According to the American Heart Association, eating more calories earlier in the day may lower the risk of cardiovascular problems.
What to Eat Before Sleep
As you see, eating before bedtime isn't necessarily bad. Moderation is the key. Watch your portions, avoid heavy meals and turn off the TV, mobile phone and other distractions at dinner.
Consider your health and fitness goals. If you're a marathon runner, for example, you may eat a banana before bed to keep your glycogen stores topped off. To lose fat or stay lean, choose high-protein foods like Greek yogurt, low-fat cheese or flourless pancakes with whey protein and egg whites.
Unless you're an athlete or keep an active lifestyle, consider cutting back on carbs before sleep. Protein is your best choice as it fuels muscle growth and revs up your metabolism. Depending on your preferences, you can eat fish before bed, snack on almonds and other nuts or drink protein shakes. These foods promote satiety, support muscle repair and balance your hormone levels.
- MIT Medical: Late-Night Eating
- Annual Review of Clinical Psychology: The Role of Sleep in Emotional Brain Function
- British Journal of Nutrition: Night-Time Consumption of Protein or Carbohydrate Results in Increased Morning Resting Energy Expenditure in Active College-Aged Men
- The Journal of Nutrition: Protein Ingestion Before Sleep Increases Muscle Mass and Strength Gains During Prolonged Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Healthy Young Men
- Nutrients: The Health Impact of Nighttime Eating: Old and New Perspectives
- New York Times: The Dangers of Eating Late at Night
- International Journal of Obesity: Morning and Afternoon Appetite and Gut Hormone Responses to Meal and Stress Challenges in Obese Individuals With and Without Binge Eating Disorder
- International Journal of Obesity: Meal Timing Affects Glucose Tolerance, Substrate Oxidation and Circadian-Related Variables
- Heart.org: Meal Planning, Timing, May Impact Heart Health