Everyone wants to know whether or not it’s a good idea to eat close to bedtime. Clients will often express their diligence in eating dinner before 7:00pm. I will often ask them why that is, and the most common response is this…
“If I eat too close to when I go to bed, that energy isn’t going to be burned. So all of that will just turn into fat and be stored on my body!”
Studies to understand how the body responds to nighttime eating have been conducted for more than thirty years. Early studies showed that nighttime eating attributed to weight gain, decreased cardiovascular health, and elevated triglycerides. With results like these, of course everyone is afraid of eating past 7:00pm!
Scientific studies can often be tailored to suit any perspective, and not every study is well-designed. Many of these earlier studies failed to consider the plethora of other factors that could be related to these outcomes. One example of this could be the fact that a person who is eating before bedtime has not eaten enough throughout the day. This can lead to binge eating on calorically-dense and nutrient-deficient food sources. This fact alone can lead to weight gain and has virtually nothing to do with the time of day at which the calories were consumed.
Another example of this can be understood by looking at sleeping patterns of an individual. We know very well that sleep is not a passive experience, but actually a very active one. The body is healing from the day, replenishing hormones and restocking energy stores. Perhaps a person eats close to bedtime but does not get a sufficient amount of sleep, or poor quality sleep. The weight gain in this individual is related to the fact that the body hasn’t experienced enough “downtime” in order to adequately process, replenish, and heal. This weight gain, again, has nothing to do with the time of day at which calories were consumed.
Let’s look at the physical activity patterns. Individuals who are sedentary and do not have an active lifestyle have less efficient means of processing energy from foods. Human bodies constantly adapt. (It’s a good thing too, because this means that we can always improve from where we are now!) So those who exercise three to five days per week have more efficient cells. When they intake energy, even at night, their bodies are better suited to take that energy and utilize it to assist in those overnight processes that I’ve been talking about. Remember… healing, replenishing, building? In the sedentary population, weight gain then cannot be solely attributed to the fact an individual ate at night time. Their cells are simply not adapted to utilize that energy efficiently no matter white time of day it is consumed.
Our belief that eating at night leads to weight gain is founded on the notion that while we are sleeping, our bodies are metabolically inactive. This is simply UNTRUE! It’s also assuming that our normal energy intake, sleep and exercise habits do not play a role. Our body is constantly at work, and even more so as we sleep. While we sleep, we are expending less energy on thinking, processing information and moving, and all of our energy on healing, replenishing, and rebuilding.
There are so many factors to consider before we can make the blanket statement that individuals shouldn’t eat at night time. If you are not eating enough energy-dense foods throughout your day, nighttime eating could be problematic for you, simply because you will be more inclined to seek out the foods that provide more calories, without many nutrients. (Think your typical snack foods like chips, cookies, ice cream, etc.) If you do not make a point to get enough sleep each night, then it’s likely that your body won’t have the necessary time to process those nutrients. If you do not exercise regularly, your body isn’t as adapted to process that energy efficiently.
Truth In Practice
The myth regarding eating at night leading to weight gain lies in small correlations, but is not indicative of causation. In fact, it’s actually been shown to be beneficial to eat at night time, so long as the snack is more similar to a “mini-meal.” Let’s talk about what that looks like in practice.
The “mini-meal” concept means that the food you eat at night should contain components of all of our macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate, and fat. This way we are providing all of the required nutrients, and we aren’t overeating any one nutrient. (You know we talk about balance ALL THE TIME!) So what can this look like?
- 1 cup of greek yogurt + ½ cup berries + 6-10 almonds
- 2 rice cakes + 1-2 Tbsp. nut butter
- 1 scoop casein protein powder + 8-12 oz. milk (regular, almond, pea, etc.)
- 1 whole wheat pita bread + 1-2 Tbsp. hummus
- 1 cup lightly salted edamame
- 1 turkey jerky stick + 1 string cheese + 2 clementines
- 1 cup whole grain cereal + 6-8 oz. milk (regular, almond, pea, etc.)
Even if you’re eating a full meal at night, as long as you are balanced with some protein, carbohydrate, and fat, it is likely that you are not doing anything to lead to weight gain. It’s more detrimental to your health to be lacking 500 calories at the end of your day, than to be over by 100 or 200 calories. (This, assuming that your calories are nutrient-dense.)
So go ahead and eat whenever you can! Whether dinner is at 6:00pm or 10:00pm, your body will thank you for providing all of the nutrients it needs! Pair this with 3-5 days of exercise, and 7-9 hours of sleep, and you’ve got a recipe for optimal health and healing!
Anna, Rhino Nutritionist