Munching mindlessly in front of the television after dinner or stopping for a late-night snack after an evening of dancing can cause you to pile on the pounds. But a sensible meal that you eat later in the evening because of due your work schedule is unlikely to send your weight spiraling out of control. You'll only gain weight if you're eating more calories than you burn, so build your late-night noshing into your daily meal plan to avoid weight gain.
Calories in and Calories Out
You'll maintain your weight if you consume as many calories as you burn daily. To determine your calorie burn, use an online calculator or talk to a dietitian. Some days you may overshoot your needs slightly, while on other days, you may be a little under. But to avoid weight gain, the numbers should even out during the week.
Late-night eating doesn't have to upset this balance, but it can if you're not careful. If you grab a midnight snack that pushes you over your calorie needs for the day once in a while, it's unlikely to affect your weight. But if it becomes a nightly habit, then weight will likely start to pile on. A total of 500 extra calories eaten at 9:00 a.m. or 10:00 p.m. daily will cause you to pack on a few extra pounds over several weeks.
The Problem With Late-Night Eating
Late-night eating is often banned from diet plans because it's not usually the time you reach for a handful of carrot sticks or a spinach salad. You're probably going to indulge in processed snacks, sweets and fast food. These foods are calorie-dense, nutrient-poor and more likely to add pounds to your frame.
Regularly eating late can also throw off your internal clock. When you eat during your body's normal "sleep" time, you may be more likely to store the calories as fat. Researchers surmise that your body reacts differently to food depending on the time of the day, because of body temperature, biochemical reactions, hormone levels and physical activity.
Research Discourages Eating Late
When you eat might have an effect on your metabolism. A 2015 study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that people who ate lunch later, at 4:30 p.m. instead of 1:00 p.m., experienced a dip in their metabolic rate, decreased ability to burn carbohydrates and more uneven blood sugar levels. These effects could possibly amplify if you eat even later, but more research is necessary to confirm this hypothesis.
Another study performed by researchers from Northwestern University in 2011 determined that people who stay up late, regularly eat after 8:00 p.m. and sleep later into the morning were at increased risk for weight gain compared to those with an earlier eating and sleeping schedule. The late sleepers regularly took in 248 more calories per day, especially in the late evening. They also made far fewer healthy choices; they ate half the fruits and vegetables, twice the fast food, and more soda than people who kept an earlier to bed and rise schedule.
How to Eat Late and Manage Your Weight
When possible, eat dinner as early as possible and give the food time to digest before you go to bed. If, however, you work nights or arrive home hungry from a late meeting, eat healthfully. Stock your fridge with healthy, easy-to-grab foods so you don't have to resort to fast food or a convenience store for your meal. Cut-up vegetables, bagged salad, canned tuna, low-fat string cheese, raw nuts, minimally processed deli meat and 100-percent whole-wheat bread all combine into quick, healthy and moderate-calorie meals.
If you work nights, treat meals just as if you work a day job. Eat a healthy meal before you head out the door and pack a mid-shift meal such as grilled chicken with brown rice and salad or Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and woven wheat crackers. Stash a few extra, healthy snacks in your bag too -- such as fresh fruit -- so you don't have to resort to the vending machine. Have your third meal when you arrive home after your shift: eggs scrambled with tomatoes and mushrooms with a whole-wheat English muffin, or a bowl of oatmeal with berries, milk and walnuts.
- The Washington Post: Why Eating Late at Night May Be Particularly Bad for You and Your Diet
- The Scientist: Out of Sync
- International Journal of Obesity: Meal Timing Affects Glucose Tolerance, Substrate Oxidation and Circadian-Related Variables: A randomized, Crossover Trial
- National Sleep Foundation: People Who Eat and Sleep Late May Gain Weight
- Northwestern University: Night Owls at Risk for Weight Gain