If you find yourself in the kitchen longing for a nightcap, you’re not alone. After a long day of work, a late-night workout, or a stressful day — which is occurring more often than not these days (thank you, pandemic) — sometimes eating at night just hits the spot. When it comes to eating before bed, there’s a connotation that picking up the fork after hours will derail any weight loss efforts. But does the science support the claims?
Before you steer clear of the kitchen after sundown, read what research and experts have to say about the effects of eating before bed on weight gain.
Hint: It may not be when you eat, but rather what you eat and how much.
What The Science Says
Will all of your weight loss efforts be tossed out the window with a bedtime meal? Not necessarily. While there is a belief that eating before bed leads to weight gain, research supports both sides.
“Nighttime eating is a controversial topic, for sure,” says Nathalie Rhone, Registered Dietitian, Functional Medicine Nutritionist, and founder of Nutrition by Nathalie LLC, a private nutrition practice focusing on health and wellness using an integrative approach. When it comes to weight gain and eating before bed, the science is inconclusive.
“Current evidence does not suggest that calories count differently before bed compared to other times of the day,” says Rhone, other factors may be at play. When considering food timing in accordance with weight gain, it’s important to consider all of your meals, not just ones eaten at night. For example, there is a difference between someone choosing to eat a meal before bed who has been fasting all day, versus someone who has been snacking all day long.
“Lately, we have seen a lot of attention placed on fasting diets and food timing,” says Nina Torti, Licensed Acupuncturist, Functional Medicine Specialist and founder of Indigo and Ease, an Integrative Health Practice utilizing acupuncture, functional medicine, and nutrition to optimize overall health and well-being. While studies show eating within a certain time frame can be beneficial, it doesn’t necessarily suggest that those hours can’t be before bed.
Torti referenced a study published in Cell Metabolism, which shows that their participants restricted their time feeding window to 10 hours or less over 12 weeks. Participants lost weight, reduced abdominal fat, lowered blood pressure, and cholesterol and had more stable blood sugar and insulin levels.
The Takeaway: The science shows there’s no hard rule when it comes to eating before bed. What we’re seeing is that food timing is just one slice of the pie (pun intended). In addition to when we eat, what we eat and how much is of equal importance. In other words, when it comes to our waistline, quality, and quantity matter.
Where The Problem Lies
If we start to see an increase in inches, it may be time for a deeper analysis on our midnight munchies. Eating before bed starts to become problematic when our urge to eat is based on factors aside from hunger. If your bedtime cravings become driven by boredom or stress, weight gain could be a potential side effect.
“You might be more likely to consume extra calories late in the evening, eat unhealthy snacks or dessert, and eat more overall, which could lead to weight gain over time,” says Rhone. While there is nothing wrong with the occasional late-night snack, “It’s all about balance, mindfulness, and choosing nutrient-dense foods,” explains Rhone.
Registered Dietitian-Approved Evening Snack Tip
If you’re craving a bedtime snack, try this R.D. approved tip by Rhone: to prevent or limit mindless eating or eating for the wrong reasons, pre-portion your foods onto a plate or little bowl!
Why Eating Before Bed Isn’t All Bad
Night owls, rejoice! Eating before bed isn’t all bad, and even has some benefits, such as:
- A Protein-Rich Snack Before Bed Could Help You Sleep Better: If you have trouble sleeping through the night, Torti recommends a protein-rich snack. “Protein breaks down into amino acids which can help support neurotransmitter synthesis to help you stay asleep throughout the night,” says Torti.
- A Small Bedtime Snack May Help Stabilize Blood Sugar Levels: Research shows a small, nutrient-dense snack (200 calories or less) has been shown to help stabilize blood sugar levels before bed
- A Small Protein-Rich Snack May Increase Protein Synthesis: Research suggests that a small protein-rich snack or drink before bed may increase protein synthesis, which is a super important part of supporting muscle repair after all of our workouts.
With that being said, in order to look and feel your best, you may want to steer clear of certain foods before bedtime.
Foods to Avoid Before Bed
According to Rhone, it’s best to avoid the following foods if you’re going to eat before bed:
- Sugary foods
- Spicy foods
- Acidic foods
- High-fat foods
- Anything with caffeine
Torti agrees it’s best to stay away from foods high in sugar or anything too heavy before bed. “Sugary foods release insulin, and insulin is the fat-storing hormone; it tells cells to store fat and prevents stored fat from breaking down. Excess insulin can also cause other hormonal imbalances and increase inflammation,” says Torti.
If you’re craving sweets, you can still find healthy ways to satisfy your craving! Torti recommends pairing something sweet with some protein to help regulate your blood sugar levels. “If I’m craving something sweet, I’ll quickly make “strawberries and cream,” and instead of cream, I use kefir, add monk fruit for sweetness and top it off with hemp seeds. The key is to snack smart, a small snack that contains your PFFs, — protein, fats, and fiber!” says Torti.
When eating before bed, the goal is to satisfy your hunger and cravings without disrupting your sleep and digestion. “Heavy meals and spicy meals can lead to indigestion, indigestion can disrupt sleep, and poor-quality sleep can affect cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol levels can lead to abdominal weight gain,” explains Torti.
So what should you eat?
What You Should Eat Before Bed
Let’s make something clear. When you’re hungry, eat! We’re big advocates of listening to your body. If your stomach is growling or you’re lying in bed hungry, your body is trying to tell you something. Before you take this as a sign to speed dial Postmates, consider reaching for foods that will leave you feeling good as you drift off to sleep.
Here are our expert-approved snacks that will satisfy your cravings without hurting your waistline.
RELATED: Protein-Rich Snacks to Curb Cravings
R.D. Approved Snacks to Eat Before Bed
Ok, so we know that there’s no one simple rule here, and not all evening snacks are bad! In fact, they may even come with some benefits — here are some R.D. approved snacks to consider when evening snack cravings strike.
- Coconut yogurt and berries and/or nut-based granola
- Nut butter dipped in baby carrots with cinnamon
- Raw or roasted pumpkin seeds with walnuts and a small amount of dark chocolate
- Warm almond/ hemp/coconut milk with cinnamon, cardamom, and turmeric
- Roasted sweet potatoes drizzled with tahini or ghee
- Crispy roasted chickpeas
- Date stuffed with nut/nut butter and a piece of chocolate
- Chia seed pudding
- Granola and peanut butter with cinnamon
TRY THIS: 2-Step Vanilla Protein Chia Pudding
- 3 tbsp chia seeds
- 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
- 1 scoop vanilla protein powder
- ½ banana, mashed
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- 2 drops vanilla stevia (optional)
- Place the chia seeds in a bowl and cover with almond milk. Add the vanilla protein, banana, berries, cinnamon, and stevia, if using. Stir to combine.
- Place in the fridge for 10 minutes before eating, or overnight.
The Bottom Line
There is no hard rule when it comes to eating before bed and weight gain. When determining the ideal times to eat, it’s important to take a highly individualized approach. The emphasis should largely be on the foods you’re choosing to eat and maintaining healthy eating habits. If you always feel like you need to snack at night, Torti suggests you may need to regulate your sugar metabolism, manage your stress levels, or address underlying nutritional insufficiencies. Seek out a certified functional medicine practitioner to help you identify the root cause of these late-night cravings.