You get home late from work and barely have time to eat dinner before it’s time to get some sleep. Long work days, social engagements, and the urge to snack make it common to eat just before bed.
Yet, it’s a long-held belief that noshing late at night disrupts digestion, sleep, and can lead to weight gain. Of course, you probably don’t want to down a large pizza before getting some rest, but is it really so bad to snack on bowl of cereal?
Experts don’t agree on the answer, but here’s is what we know:
Eating before bed won’t disrupt digestion, but it could make you feel sick.
Digestion is a pretty complex process that can be simplified like this: food moves through your stomach, down the gastrointestinal tract and into your small and large intestines. There, enzymes and muscle contractions help to further break down your meal so the particles can be absorbed by your body. The leftovers, or waste, are delivered to the colon. Thankfully, this process is automatic, says Gastroenterologist Dr. David Poppers, MD, PhD and associate professor at NYU Langone Medical Center.
“It’s not like digestion shuts down during sleep,” he says. Rest easy: that bedtime burger won’t get held up if you pass out after the last bite.
However, muscle contractions and stomach motility may slow when you’re sleeping, so a heavy meal could leave you feeling queasy.
Consuming your last meal right before bed could keep you awake.
Certain foods and drinks, like caffeine or alcohol, notoriously make it hard to sleep. But many common dinner favorites, like lasagna, spicy tacos, or chocolate ice cream, can trigger acid reflux in people who are prone to the condition.
Sleeping in an elevated position with the help of pillows may alleviate the problem, since it helps prevent acid from traveling up the esophagus, says Poppers.
That said, you shouldn’t avoid eating if you’re hungry, since a rumbling stomach can also keep you awake. Generally, experts suggest waiting two hours after a meal to sleep.
In fact, eating a light, protein-dense snack may be helpful, says Michael Ormsbee, PhD and associate professor of nutrition, food, and exercise science at Florida State University. People who ate 30 grams of protein roughly 30 minutes before bed boosted their metabolism and were less hungry the next morning, according to a 2018 study conducted by Ormsbee and published in the British Journal of Nutrition.
He recommends sticking to a 150 calorie, protein-rich food like cottage cheese.
Experts agree eating earlier in the evening better supports our circadian rhythms. But there’s little consensus about whether late night meals lead to weight gain.
Every biological process, including eating and sleeping, is controlled by your body’s circadian rhythms. This internal clock is regulated by the environment, meaning you’re more alert during the day because your body slows at night in anticipation of sleep.
“A lot of things are going slower [at night], says Eric Ravussin, PhD and Director of the Nutritional Obesity Research Center at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana. “Cortisol goes down. Your heart rate goes way down. And all of these are really modulating your energy expenditure,” he explains to Men’s Health. In other words, you burn fewer calories when it’s dark compared to daylight hours.
But there is one that that increases when you sleep: fat burning.
“If you were active or eating that wouldn’t happen,” Ravussin says.
That’s because your body burns stored fat after depleting carbs from your last meal and stored glycogen, explains Satchin Panda, professor at the Salk Institute and author of “The Circadian Code.”
Eating before bed gives you more fuel to burn and decreases the length of time your body resorts to using fat to fuel itself.
But can an hour or two of fat burning make a difference on the scale?
Probably not, says Ormsbee. “The overwhelming science would say that calorie intake is the only thing that matters,” he explains to Men’s Health. However, restricting the number of hours you eat in a day may also reduce calorie consumption, he says.
Some research links late night meals to poor overall health.
That said, eating before bed is linked metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors including high blood pressure and belly fat, that increase your chances of developing heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
Research in people who work night shifts indicate that this group is more likely to have inflammation, oxidative stress, and risk factors for cardiovascular diseases.
“If you can ingest calories earlier in the day, there is an advantage of metabolic health,” says Ravussin.
But not everyone has the advantage of sleeping two hours after a meal. So what do you do?
Poppers advises carving out some time during the day where you can have a distraction-free meal. This allows you to eat mindfully and consume less air with each bite, lowering GI discomfort, he says. Although no research has determined the precise time we should eat dinner, it’s probably best not to eat a 600-calorie meals right before bed.
Instead, make your last meal a light mix of complex carbs and protein, Poppers advises.
Of course, the best way to lose weight is by finding a plan that works for you.
“Stick to the one thing that you can adhere to forever,” says Orsmbee. “If you can stick to it forever you’re going to have the best outcome for you.”