Weight gain or weight loss? Exploring the effects of eating before bed
Here’s what experts know so far.
You know the drill: you’re about to hit the hay when suddenly a case of the munchies strikes. So, you head to the fridge and grab a snack (or even a full-sized plate of leftovers) before retiring.
But, have you ever wondered whether eating before bed has any impact on your health, either good or bad? Can it affect your ability to sleep or actually help you get higher-quality ZZZs? Are there certain foods to avoid? And can eating before bed make you gain weight?
It turns out the answers to these questions aren’t exactly clear-cut. There are numerous factors involved, including what and how much you eat, when you eat and what else you eat during the day.
Here’s what experts know so far.
Is eating before bed bad?
It’s long been suggested that eating right before bed is a big no-no. Doing so could be bad for your health and waistline because your body wasn’t really up to the task of digesting food when it was trying to get primed for sleep.
However, in recent years, the actual answer has shifted slightly. Now, some evidence suggests that it really depends — on what you’re eating, how much you’re eating and other factors like whether you’ve moved your body during the day.
One 2015 study found that, while eating a big meal with lots of different foods in it could have a negative impact on health and weight, a small, low-energy snack packed with nutrients could have the opposite effect .
The authors of the study stated that such snacks could deliver a nutritional boost as well as other benefits like improved metabolism and minor decreases in cholesterol. They also said that doing exercise eliminated any harmful effects of eating before bed.
A small bedtime snack can also be beneficial for those with diabetes, as it may prevent low blood sugar overnight .
What are the risks of eating before bed?
A light snack may not have much of an impact on your body, depending on what you eat. But a larger one, or a full meal, very well could.
While your experience usually comes down to how different foods affect your body, there may be several risks associated with eating before bed. These include:
- Gastrointestinal discomfort, acid reflux or heartburn: This is due to food not being digested properly when you’re lying down
- Worsened sleep complications: Some research shows that eating late can worsen problems like sleep apnoea
- Poor sleep: When your body is busy digesting food, or you’re suffering from gastrointestinal discomfort, it can make it difficult to sleep
- Weight gain: For various reasons, eating before bed could contribute to weight gain
Will I gain weight if I eat before bed?
The answer to this one is fairly complicated.
Several experts argue that eating before bed isn’t closely linked to weight gain. They say that gaining weight largely depends on how much energy you consume overall and how much you burn off — regardless of when you eat or move your body — as well as other factors like genetics, lifestyle and medical conditions .
There’s also that study we mentioned earlier that stated that a light, nutritionally dense snack could actually offer certain benefits to your health and weight .
However, many dietitians recommend completely avoiding food before bed. Their argument is that nighttime eating works against your body’s circadian rhythm and that any energy you consume — be it from a full meal or a snack — will end up being stored as fat, simply because you’re not burning it off .
Plus, research has shown that those who eat and go to bed late tend to make poorer food choices.
A 2011 study found that these people consumed 248 more calories, twice as much fast food, more high-calorie soft drinks, and half the amount of fruit and veg than those who went to bed earlier. Most of these foods and drinks were consumed at dinner and late in the evening. As a result, they also had a higher BMI than the early sleepers .
Does eating before bed ruin your sleep?
Again, it depends on what and how much you eat.
Having a large meal before bed could absolutely impact your sleep quality. Your body is busy trying to digest food during a period when it’s less efficient at doing so. Plus, you might also suffer from gastrointestinal discomfort if you’ve just had a heavy meal. Both of these can make it difficult to fall asleep .
In turn, research shows that having chronically poor-quality sleep or being sleep deprived can also contribute to weight gain. This is because it can lower the release of a hormone called leptin (responsible for making you feel full) and increase a hormone known as ghrelin (which makes you feel hungry).
On the flip side, some foods could be beneficial before bed because they trigger the hormones that help you sleep — like melatonin and serotonin . We’ll dive into these foods below.
Are there foods that help you sleep?
Unfortunately, there’s no single food that’ll guarantee an amazing night’s sleep. Instead, the overall quality of your diet is likely to have the biggest effect on your ability to get good rest .
Studies show that healthy diets that are high in fibre and low in sugar and saturated fat are linked to better sleep, while those high in processed and sugary foods have the opposite effect .
However, there are some foods that help the release of hormones — meaning they may just improve your shut-eye.
- Tryptophan-containing foods: Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps synthesise serotonin and melatonin — both of which are essential for sleep. Foods that contain decent levels of tryptophan include turkey, chicken, tuna, full-fat and low-fat cow’s milk and oats .
- Magnesium-rich foods: Magnesium is linked to improved sleep, with one study showing it can be an effective tool for combatting insomnia . Magnesium-rich foods include pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, almonds and spinach .
- Cow’s milk: Milk contains melatonin, which is one of the key hormones involved in sleep regulation.
- Fruits like kiwi and tart cherry: Interestingly, studies have shown that kiwi fruit and tart cherry juice can improve sleep quality and/or duration as both contain sleep-inducing melatonin .
Foods to avoid eating before bed
It probably goes without saying that foods or drinks that contain caffeine are best avoided before bed. Caffeine is a stimulant that makes your brain and nervous system more active, meaning it can lead to restlessness or sleeplessness . Foods and drinks with caffeine include coffee, black tea, hot chocolate, cola, energy drinks, and milk and dark chocolate.
But, you should also try and steer clear of alcohol, as well as spicy and acidic meals and foods that are high in fat or protein.
While having several drinks before bed might make you feel sleepy, alcohol can inhibit your overall sleep quality because it disrupts your sleep cycle throughout the night .
Acidic and spicy foods can cause acid reflux and an increase in your core body temperature — both of which make sleeping pretty difficult .
High-protein foods can be hard for your body to digest, while high-fat ones (like fried foods) may cause a drop in your body’s sensitivity to orexin, a peptide that regulates your body’s sleep and wake cycles.
When is the best time to stop eating before bed?
Most experts recommend you stop eating around 3 hours before bed . Not only does this give your body ample time to digest dinner, but it also means that if you experience issues like acid reflux or an increased temperature, you can address them before hitting the sack.
But, if you like to eat dinner super early and go to bed on the later side, and you often go to bed hungry, you might benefit from having a small and healthy snack shortly before bed. This could be a piece of fruit, a glass of milk or a handful of nuts and seeds.
Should you drink water before bed?
Now that we’ve covered eating before bed, what about drinking water? Once again, experts recommend keeping your water consumption to a minimum in the hours before you retire .
Drinking a huge amount of H20 can mean you’re forced to make numerous toilet trips, leading to a disrupted night’s sleep. Not getting enough sleep can cause sleep deprivation and the issues associated with it — like memory problems, increased stress, mood disorders and, as we now know, weight gain .
If you can, stick to about a glass’s worth of water in the 2 hours before bed. Doing so will ensure you keep up your hydration levels without negatively impacting your rest.
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