I get asked this question all the time.
Studies have suggested a range of connections between late-night eating and weight gain, but does consuming calories after sunset really lead to weight gain?
The answer? Yes and no.
I will explain…
The Midnight Munchies — Why It Matters
Eating before bed has long been made a cardinal sin of weight loss, leading some weight-conscious individuals to forgo any food after 8pm.
One study with more than 400 participants found that evening snacking was associated with higher body mass index (BMI).
Several others determined that eating food when a body should be at rest can be detrimental.
One study found that mice, our smaller, furrier, nocturnal friends gained significantly more weight when fed during the day, when they’d normally be asleep.
The results were a loose proxy for what can happen when humans eat a load of calories at night (when we’d normally be asleep).
When the mice followed a time-controlled diet (not just eating whenever they wanted), the risk of metabolic diseases decreased.
We’re not mice, but sometimes we don’t act much differently:
It’s important to realise that night time eaters tend to skip breakfast, which ends up in a vicious cycle where the person is hungrier and more likely to overeat later in the day, and then not hungry for breakfast again.
If the same total number of calories are consumed each day, it doesn’t matter how they’re distributed.
But… eating later in the day may be directly related to eating too little earlier in the day, and it’s that pattern that leads to overconsumption.
So night time eaters should be sure they are having an adequate breakfast and lunch. If they aren’t, it may be why they’re getting hungry so late.
But other studies seem to contradict the notion that night time binges lead to expanding waistlines, at least in primates.
A study on monkeys found those consuming the majority of their calories later at night were no more likely to gain weight than their day-eating companions.
Made in the Morning
While evening calories may not be the main culprit, other influences might be at work.
Since the appetite-regulating hormone ghrelin is better regulated in the morning, it is easier to prevent overeating during the day versus at night.
This means that the body’s ability to feel full is much stronger in the morning, so we stop eating sooner.
But if you exercise at night or work late hours, don’t feel like you can’t eat. Calorie intake/burn is still the most important thing for managing weight.
But keep in mind that those who eat most of their calories after 8pm may experience poor sleep quality following their binge sessions (and poor sleep is associated with future weight gain and obesity).
Finally, a reason for an afternoon nap!
Apart from interrupting sleep cycles, late-night eaters tend to munch on high-calorie foods and often end up exceeding their recommended daily caloric intake.
In addition, night time snacking tends to take place in front of the TV or computer, where overeating is all too easy.
Sweet Dreams—The Answer/Debate
Eating directly before bed may lead to weight gain, but researchers haven’t pinpointed the exact culprit.
Sleep and calorie source seem to be the two main villains.
It turns out our bodies are generally better able to metabolise food at certain times of day (not night time).
Studies indicate that late-night calories impact sleep cycles, throwing off normal body rhythm and packing on the pounds.
Therefore, you should focus on improving sleep quality by avoiding high-sugar foods directly before bed and kicking the late-night TV habit for a fiction book (not fiction), or at least ditch the TV-time snack.
It’s easy to reach for high-sugar, high-fat foods to curb cravings late at night, which can cause calorie intake to skyrocket, mainly due to decreased activity and more sitting around time.
If that bedtime snack is a necessity, reach for healthier options.
Check out my blog – The 4 Best Foods to Eat Before Bed
Overall, it’s better to focus on how often you eat, how much you’re eating and exactly what you’re eating.
To support healthy metabolism and digestion and manage energy and weight, it’s typically best to eat every three or four hours, have breakfast within one hour of waking, and stop eating a few hours before bedtime.
Try to steer clear of sugary snacks late at night and always include some lean protein and fibre-rich complex carbs with every meal and snack.