Is it Really Bad to Eat Late at Night?

Wednesdays are a doousy this semester, filled with running between two campuses (I TA at the Columbia main campus and am a student at the CUMC campus), and capped off beautifully with a 3-hour night class that lets out around 8:30pm. Brutal. I don’t often hate my hour commute, but let me tell you – on Wednesday nights I find it very unfun.

Typically, I snack before night class, but for whatever reason, never feel like eating a meal before/during class. Hence, I usually eat dinner once I’ve gotten home/unloaded/gotten Millie out for a walk, typically around 10:00pm. As I often document what I’m up to on Insta stories, I had a follower ask me if it’s really true that it’s bad for you to eat before bed.

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I get asked about if it’s really bad for you to eat before bed quite a bit, and see confusion surrounding the topic circulating the internet quite a bit, so I thought it could make for a fun and informative blog post.

Disclaimer: As with all my nutrition and health-related posts, I’d like to point out that while I have a background in nutrition science, I am not your healthcare provider nor personal nutritionist. I have no information on your health history or current state of physical and mental well-being. These posts are intended as general information for healthy adults. Please do not substitute what you read on the internet for seeking individualized clinical care.

First of all, Here’s The Right Time You Should Eat:

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You know when the best time to eat is? When you’re hungry, that’s when! We’re living creatures with circadian rhythms and every day presents different activity levels, stress levels, sleep levels, and environmental factors that may impact when hunger hits and when we eat.

If you ask me, clocks are pretty arbitrary when it comes to hunger. The idea that you should ‘close the kitchen’ or ‘stop eating after 7/8:00pm is totally arbitrary and it bothers me that so many people think this is a rule you should implement into your life.

So the best time to eat dinner (or any meal) is when you’re hungry for dinner (and of course, have access to food and time to eat it), whether this be 4:30pm or 10:30pm.

Will Eating Late at Night Make You Gain Weight?

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Well, if you’re truly hungry and eat late at night, the answer is no. Your body burns calories all day, every day, even when you sleep.

While it is true your metabolic rate is lower when you’re sleeping than say, when you’re say, walking at a fast pace during the day, you are most certainly still burning calories in your sleep. Every bodily process you can think of requires fuel – from breathing to thinking to your heart pumping blood through your body.

But just because you may be burning slightly fewer calories while hitting the pillows compared to going through the motions of daily life does not mean eating before bed will lead to weight gain. The total amount of calories you eat in a day contributes more to caloric deficit/excess than does the timing of their consumptions.

So, if you’re hungry and haven’t eaten dinner at 10:00pm, your body probably didn’t get enough calories during the day, and requires fuel to meet that deficit and fuel you through the night.

That said, late-night munching could potentially lead to weight gain if you are eating a lot of food late at night and are not truly physically hungry. Especially if your midnight munch involves a lot of high-calorie snack or dessert foods.

Again, this habit could potentially lead to weight gain at any time of day, so eating late at night is not necessarily the culprit, but it’s worth noting that a lot of people tend to binge on calorie-dense foods – rather than meals – late at night.

There are a couple studies that have associated late-night eating with weight-gain I’ve seen float around the internet, but the two studies I’ve seen often cited are very small, observational studies that don’t take a lot of confounders into account, so I find them both very unconvincing.  Also, just a personal side note: gaining weight is not always a problem.

So Should You eat late at night?

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Well, that’s up to you and your level of hunger. If you’re hungry, I say go for it. Or there’s an occasion (like a late-night ice cream run invite) that will allow you to enjoy life even if you’re not super hungry, I also say go for it. But if you’re just bored and find yourself binging on junk food without a tinge of hunger, then maybe assess why you’re midnight munching all the time.

It’s also important to note that if you’re consistently very hungry late at night, you might be under-eating during the day. I notice on days I’m running around a lot and not eating as much as I would if I were at home, I get very hungry around 8 or 9 pm. This is my signal to myself that I’m under-fueling, and should make more of an effort to eat more during busy days.

If you’re restricting your caloric intake due to an eating disorder or diet regime, you may also experience this sensation. It may mean you just need more fuel throughout the day, in which case I’d advise consuming more calories at meals and/or snacks. Calories aren’t bad. Calories = fuel to live your life.

If you have psychological blocks that prevent you from consuming enough during the day and end up consistently binging at night, I’d suggest seeing a therapist or disordered-eating dietitian. If you’re just too busy to fuel yourself but have no problem with eating more, I’d suggest just making more of an effort to eat regularly throughout the day.

That Said, If You Suffer from Acid Reflux/GERD:

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Eating late at night – especially anything acidic – may not be a good idea. Why? Eating close to laying down can cause whatever you just ate to linger by your lower esophageal sphincter and allow acid creep up in your esophagus and exacerbate GERD symptoms.

I’d recommend waiting at least two hours after eating before laying down if acid reflux/GERD is something you struggle with!

Do I Eat Late at Night?

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Yes, probably every day I at least have a snack around 8-8:30pm. Typically it’s something carby and a little sweet – like a banana with Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter or peanut butter, a slice of peanut butter toast, or a bowl of cereal. And this is in addition to the bit of dessert I have after dinner every day.

I find eating a little carby snack before bed makes me feel satiated and have noticed I wake up famished if I skip the snack. When my GERD is flaring, I aim to eat it a little earlier, or stay up a little later.

This is what works for me, and I hope you do what works for you, whether that be incorporating night-time snacks because you’re hungry or find they bring satisfaction to your life in some meaningful way, or skip them all together because you don’t get hungry or like eating late at night.

Questions or other nutrition FAQs you’d like answered? Drop them below or hit me up on Instagram or Twitter.

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