Nutrition advice comes in all shapes and forms, including suggestions about what you should eat and when.
There is no shortage of information out there and you’ll often find that some pieces of advice contradict others.
Likewise, people often give their opinions without knowing whether or not they are actually right.
One area that is often debated is the question: Is it bad to eat before bed?
Many people assume that yes, eating before bed is unhealthy. In particular, this pattern is thought to contribute to weight gain, especially as the metabolism changes when we are sleeping.
But, what does the science have to say and is it bad to eat before bed?
Eating Before Bed and Weight Gain
The biggest reason that people choose not to eat before bed is the potential for weight gain. This idea is based on a person’s metabolism slowing down overnight.
Theoretically, a person would tend to burn less energy overnight. This could mean that they are more likely to convert some of what was consumed into fat.
At face value, this idea makes sense but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Instead, research suggests that the metabolic needs of the body are similar during the night as they are during the day (1,2).
This isn’t too surprising, as the body engages in many important repair and maintenance processes while we sleep.
Overall, in terms of physiology, there is no reason why eating before bed should lead to weight gain or health problems. Yet, some studies do suggest that eating at night can result in weight gain (3,4,5).
Why is that?
Well, it turns out that the connection isn't from impacts on the body but from effects that eating patterns have on behavior.
Most evidence suggests that eating before bed doesn't directly contribute to weight gain. Instead, calories at night tend to be mostly the same as calories at other points in the day
Impacts on Behavior
One of the key reasons that eating before bed can be unhealthy is that it can lead to bad habits. For that matter, many people who eat before bed probably already have unhealthy patterns centered around eating.
The first aspect of this is just that eating before bed is an extra snack. That adds onto your calories for the day, so it’s not too surprising that the practice contributes to weight gain. Additionally, most people have already eaten enough for the day when bedtime rolls around.
In many cases, eating at night is also a fairly impulsive decision.
For example, you might be eating snacks while watching a movie, which makes it extremely easy to eat more than you intended. Alternatively, you might just be craving something sweet.
Not only can the food result in extra calories but it can also get you into a bad eating pattern.
Often, this happens because eating at night may leave you feeling relatively full first thing in the morning. So, you may skip breakfast or not eat enough during the day – making you starving at night. The pattern means that you’re prone to overeating in the evening and you may make bad decisions about what you eat.
Now, I want to be clear, skipping a meal or having an unusual eating pattern isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For example, some people lose weight via intermittent fasting and may be skipping breakfast to do so.
That type of pattern can offer health benefits and being hungry doesn’t affect metabolism like most people expect.
Nevertheless, there’s a big difference between an intentional diet that means you are hungry some of the time and not having control of your eating patterns. The latter is what happens to some people who eat before bed and may be a key reason why the behavior can be unhealthy.
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Potential Benefits from Eating Before Bed
There are also some potential benefits connected to eating before bed, especially in terms of weight loss. Some of these may be more relevant to you than others but they are worth seriously considering.
It Can Help Decrease Snacking
Many people struggle with hunger and cravings for food. As a result, they might find themselves getting up during the night to have something to eat.
If that’s you, then having something to eat before you go to bed can help.
As a result, the snack can easily decrease your calorie intake and promote health and weight loss.
But, this depends on who you are.
If you don’t tend to eat during the night, then having a snack before dinner isn’t going to decrease your calorie intake. Instead, it would end up increasing it.
For those who tend to eat during the night, having food before bed can help decrease snacking
May Help to Stabilize Blood Sugar
Some research suggests that having a snack before bed can help reduce this issue, as this gives your body energy throughout the night. As such, the body doesn’t need to raise blood sugar itself (10,11).
However, the research on this area has been limited. If you do have issues with high blood sugar in the morning, then your first step should be to talk to your physician to see whether snacking at night is a good plan.
For some, eating before bed can help to stabilize blood sugar levels
Eating Before Bed Can Improve Sleep
There are a lot of claims about what certain foods can do to sleep and the area hasn’t been researched very much. However, there is some evidence that eating before you sleep can help improve your sleep quality, especially if you choose the right food.
Modern eating patterns do mean that it’s easy to be hungry, to some degree, before bed. After all, many of us may have dinner somewhere between 5 and 7, while bedtime may be hours later.
Some people also experience low blood sugar during the night (hypoglycemia) and this can have an impact on sleep (15).
This pattern may be something that you’re not even aware of.
If nothing else, eating before bed may be an idea worth trying.
Getting enough sleep is one of the most critical approaches for overall health and inadequate sleep has been linked to a range of health issues, including obesity (16,17,18) and depression (19,20,21), as well as increased risk of heart disease (22), stroke (23) and diabetes (24,25,26).
At the same time, not getting enough sleep is often connected to problems with concentration and changes to behavior.
As I said before, there hasn’t been a lot of research into ‘is it bad to eat before bed’, so there is still a lot we don’t know. Likewise, the effects of eating might vary from one person to another.
But, the potential to improve your sleep by eating before bed is certainly an appealing benefit.
Eating before bed may improve sleep, resulting in a range of health and weight benefits
People vary considerably in what eating pattern works the best for them and this is true when it comes to eating before bed as well.
For some people, doing so can be a good way to stave off cravings and ensure they get a good night’s sleep.
For others, eating before bed may mean extra calories and could result in weight gain.
In fact, the impact of food on sleep is also complicated, as eating before bed can actually decrease sleep quality as well (27). This is partly related to the specific food that you eat and also the way that your body functions as a whole.
So, some people may find that snacking before bed helps them to sleep, while others may find it hinders sleeping. Figuring out what works for you may be a matter of trial and error.
Your health conditions may also influence whether or not you should eat before bed.
For example, acid reflux is a common problem and can result in heartburn and difficulty swallowing (28,29). If you experience acid reflux, then it’s best to avoid snacking before bed entirely, as this can make your symptoms worse (30,31).
Likewise, if you have a condition that affects your blood sugar, eating before bed could help or could make things worse. In that case, it’s important to talk to your doctor to figure out what is right for you personally.
Individuals will vary in what works for them and eating before bed may be effective for some people and counterproductive for others
Is it Bad to Eat Before Bed?
For the most part, the answer to ‘is it bad to eat before bed’ is no. Or, more specifically, there is no physical reason that eating before bed should cause weight gain or health problems.
However, the outcomes do vary from person to person.
For example, if you don’t normally have a midnight snack, then eating before bed could be extra calories that you wouldn’t normally consume. If you don’t account for this in your diet, the practice could easily result in weight gain.
In a similar way, some people may simply find that eating before bed has a negative impact on sleep.
Still, there are enough potential benefits to make this idea appealing for some people.
If you do plan to eat before bed, then it’s worth focusing on healthy foods and not overdoing it with calories.
This type of combination can help to keep your blood sugar stable and be enough to stave off any issues with hunger.
There is no shortage of options and it may simply be a matter of trying out different snacks and seeing what has the best outcome for you personally.
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Which pattern would work best for you? Eating before bed or not?