Eating Before Bed: Healthy or Harmful?

Satisfying a craving before you head to bed or waking for a little midnight snack can certainly be tempting, but you might be put off by some warnings. You may have heard that your pre-sleep snacks can cause weight gain, poor sleep and indigestion—but are these claims fact or fiction?

As it turns out, there are mixed opinions about the benefits, drawbacks and general effects of eating before bed. Whether it’s comfortable or healthy for you to do so might depend on your overall sleep quality and health. Here’s what you should know.

Late-night snacks can cause indigestion

Eating right before you get in bed can lead to some unpleasant stomach pain and heartburn because of how the esophagus and stomach are aligned in your body. Normally, gravity would help keep the contents of your stomach where they are supposed to be after you eat. Unfortunately, when you lie flat, gravity isn’t always able to keep food and stomach acid down.

If the lower esophageal sphincter—a muscular valve that rests between the stomach and esophagus—is open, the contents of your stomach might slip back up into the esophagus, causing a painful feeling in your throat and chest called heartburn. If you frequently experience heartburn, it might be even more prominent after a pre-bedtime snack.

Depending on what nighttime meal or snack you indulge in, you might also experience discomfort or pain as a result of indigestion. This isn’t necessarily related to sleep—indigestion can happen anytime you overeat, eat quickly or eat very filling, greasy or spicy foods. However, if it occurs just before your bedtime, you’ll probably have a much more difficult time falling or staying asleep.

The link between nighttime eating and weight gain is unclear

One of the biggest warnings against eating before bed is that your late-night snacking habit might cause you to gain weight. However, the topic has not been studied extensively enough to confirm a link.

Some experts hypothesize that eating late in the evening could play a role in throwing off your circadian rhythm—the 24-hour body clock that regulates all sorts of metabolic processes—and, by extension, could impact weight loss and gain. Unfortunately, this has yet to be proven. Many studies actually show that your metabolic rate stays nearly the same during the day and at night.

If you’re following a regulated eating pattern like intermittent fasting, eating right before bed is probably discouraged. But this is most likely because your fasting window occurs overnight while you sleep, making it easier to go longer without food.

What is really important when considering weight gain and nighttime snacks is what you’re eating, how much you’re eating and what kind of activity you’re doing during the day to offset it. Eating too many calories without exercising—no matter what time of day it is—can lead to weight gain all the same.

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There might be benefits of eating before bed

Aside from the potential for indigestion and possible impacts on weight, eating before bed might also have benefits for the right person.

Some people find it difficult to fall asleep with a rumbly tummy, and they need a little snack to head to bed feeling full and happy. The easiest way to alleviate this is to time your meals appropriately, so you aren’t eating many hours before bed or too close to your bedtime.

Eating a small healthy snack before bed can actually be a useful part of a calming nighttime routine. If you are going to incorporate eating into this routine, make sure it’s intentional. A planned late-night snack can help you avoid giving into unhealthy eating habits like bingeing on junk food, helping to keep you healthy and potentially leading to weight loss.

Use these tips for healthy pre-sleep snacking

If you are a late-night snacker but want to minimize the negative effects of eating before bed, use these tips.

  • Try to eat large meals two to three hours before you actually lie down. This gives your stomach time to digest the food, so you reduce your risk of heartburn.
  • Avoid eating greasy, fatty, spicy or fibrous foods right before bed. These foods can take longer to digest and increase your risk of uncomfortable heartburn. And, of course, avoid eating any foods that you are sensitive to that might cause bloating, gas and inflammation as well as foods that contain caffeine, like chocolate.
  • Choose complex carbs or proteins, like apples with peanut butter or avocado toast, for your pre-bedtime snack. These foods are easily digestible but won’t cause sugar crashes or promote unhealthy habits.
  • Certain foods might help induce better sleep. These are foods that contain tryptophan—an amino acid—and melatonin—a hormone. Small amounts of milk or cheese, nuts, fish, eggs, cherries, kiwi and bananas are great choices.

Eating before bed isn’t necessarily all good or all bad. It depends on your health and quality of sleep. If you think your late-night snacking is contributing to insomnia or weight gain, try to go without and examine any changes. Otherwise, be intentional with your food choices and enjoy your pre-sleep treat!

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