We’ve heard it so many times – the key to weight loss is kicking our late night snack habit. The general belief is that eating before bed causes weight gain because your metabolism slows down when you fall asleep meaning your undigested calories are stored as fat. So we spend our evenings working hard to ignore the pile of chocolate biscuits we swear is calling out our name from the back of the cupboard. But how true is the claim – is eating into the evening really making a difference?
How Do Our Bodies Digest Our Food At Night?
When you eat, chewing breaks the food down and softens it. Your body releases digestive enzymes, food moves to the stomach and down the gastrointestinal tract. More enzymes help break down your meal, some food molecules get absorbed into the body and the rest is passed onto the colon as waste.
Eating right before bedtime is unlikely to cause any problems in slowing this process down. It’s an automatic function so we don’t need to be awake for it. However, lying down whilst the process is starting can cause the digestive juices to travel up to your oesophagus and cause heartburn, acid reflux or even GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease).
The best way to combat is to not lie down in bed or on the sofa for at least 15 minutes after eating to give your body time to start digesting. If you experience problems with GERD, it’s best to not lie down for 3 hours after eating. Issues with heartburn can cause problems sleeping, leaving you sleep-deprived which in itself is linked to overeating and weight gain.
There is also no evidence that your metabolic rate is different at night. Your body still needs plenty of energy at night so calories don’t count more before bedtime than during the day.
What Is The Link Between Late Night Food and Weight Gain?
Studies are not definitive on whether eating late at night causes weight gain but there are studies that show a link. However, the link is likely to be because people who eat before bedtime are usually consuming an extra meal, and therefore extra calories. The evening is the time of day we are more likely to get hungry, so we’re more likely to add on calories to our daily intake past what we need. In addition to this, people who snack late at night usually do so in front of the TV, which is known to cause problems in weight gain.
Some people find themselves eating later because they don’t eat enough during the day and they become over hungry. This can cause a cycle, as they eat more before bed, find themselves full in the morning and so eat less during the day. Extreme hunger like this can lead to weight gain through overeating. You should make sure you eat balanced meals throughout the day to avoid this.
Eating At Night Can Actually Help You Lose Weight
If you tend to get hungry in the evening, a snack after dinner can help you control needing a night-time snack. In a 4-week study of adults who snacked at night, participants who began eating one bowl of cereal and milk 90 minutes after dinner ate an average of 397 fewer calories per day. Over time, having a healthy snack after dinner can help you lose weight.
Not only this, it can help you sleep better. It stops people going to bed hungry or waking up in the night hungry. Because sleep deprivation can cause weight gain, if you are going to bed hungry often then introducing a healthy snack to your evenings will help you in the long term.
What Should I Eat In The Evening?
If you are going to snack to help you sleep, its best to avoid junk food or desserts. These are just going to add unnecessary calories to your daily intake. Unhealthy fats and added sugars can also trigger cravings and overeating. If you want a sweet snack then dark chocolate or berries are the best things to reach for, or if you prefer savoury try some nuts.
Overall, the answer as to whether it’s ok to snack or eat late is for the individual to decide what works for them. But it’s important to focus more on what you are eating than the times you are eating it. Make sure to take note of the quality and quantity of food you are eating all day. It is still unwise to snack on unhealthy foods before bed or eat lots of calories at night, but a healthy snack before bed can be ok!