How Late-Night Eating Sabotages Weight Loss

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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How Late-Night Eating Sabotages Weight Loss

“Don’t eat after dinner.” This piece of weight-loss advice is preached by many food and exercise experts, but is there really any scientific merit to it? Late-night eating has no clear-cut definitions, but is roughly defined as eating after the final meal of the day (anywhere from 5 to 11 p.m. for most of us), right before going to sleep or upon waking up in the middle of the night.

At a glance, the logic for this practice is attractive. After all, you’re not moving at night so the extra calories consumed will be stored as fat instead of being burned for energy. But wait, isn’t weight gain supposed to depend on the quantity and quality of calories consumed?


One study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health examined the eating patterns of 160 healthy adults, and observed the weights of those adults six months later. Researchers found night eating (defined as eating after 11 p.m. on one of three consecutive days) to be common—35-37% of the participants qualified as late-night eaters. The study also linked night eating to more weight gain during the six-month follow-up.

But, was it really eating time that caused the weight gain? Maybe not. The researchers found night eaters consumed more calories on average compared to non night-eaters even when their macronutrient ratios (percentage of carbs, protein and fat) remained the same.

More research needs to be done in this area, but, based on this study, it seems that when you consume calories is still not as influential on weight gain as how many calories you’re consuming. It is true that our metabolism dials down late at night while we’re sleeping, but as long as we’re active enough during the day, eat a healthy, balanced diet, and maintain a calorie deficit, weight loss should still happen.


So why does late-night eating conspire against you, weight-wise? Usually late-night eating happens because you’re stressed out by a negative emotion like anger, sadness, loneliness or worry, and you’re looking to de-stress by eating. Late-night eaters are more likely to:

  • Eat high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods. Let’s be honest: Nobody stress eats with carrots. Most of us will grab salty or sweet snacks like chips, candies, cookies and ice cream because they’re feel-good foods.
  • Eat in larger portions. The foods we gravitate towards during stress tend to deliver a lot of calories, but not enough volume. It’s really easy not to watch your portion size, and overeat.
  • Eat mindlessly. If you distract yourself while eating (think watching late-night TV with a bag of chips), you’ll likely eat more calories since you’re not paying attention to signals that you’re full.
  • Sleep less. Stress can disrupt the quality of your sleep and the number of hours you sleep. Even if we take late-night eating out of the equation, many studies find that sleep deprivation (sleeping less than eight hours per day) increases your risk for weight gain.



While night eating is a minor habit that can negatively affect our weight goals, night eating syndrome (NES) is actually a disorder that should be assessed and treated by a medical professional. NES is commonly experienced as 1) a lack of appetite in the morning, 2) overeating at night and 3) waking up throughout the night to eat.

It’s estimated that only a small fraction of the general population suffer from NES (about 1-2%) though it may be more common in overweight and obese individuals. If you suspect this is something you’re suffering from, consider bringing it up with your doctor.


For the rest of us, an occasional session of night eating is not likely a problem, particularly if you feel hungry. Sometimes it’s simply unavoidable because of our busy lives. For example, if you had to skip a meal that day, it’s better to make up for it after dinner than to go to bed hungry. It’s also smart to grab a light snack for recovery if you just did a tough late-night workout.

When hunger strikes late in the day, rather than thinking of late-night eating as a “meal,” think of it more like a “snack” of 200 calories or less. Here’s a couple of smart snack ideas for your late-night munching.

  • 1 cup reduced fat (2%) milk + 1 cup whole-grain cereal
  • 1 (6-ounce) plain Greek yogurt + 1/4 cup granola
  • 1 small whole-grain pita + 1/4 cup hummus
  • 1 medium apple + 1 tablespoon nut butter
  • 1 medium banana + 1 hardboiled egg

Does eating late at night affect your weight goals? If so, share your experiences below in the comments.

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.


14 responses to “How Late-Night Eating Sabotages Weight Loss”

  1. Lynn says:

    I admit I’m a night eater. I have started shifting my night eating habits to say, a dark leafy green salad with a touch of feta, or if I need something sweet, a Greek yogurt. I make sure to drink plenty of wanted and I take it out of my next day’s calories and am still steadily losing weight.

  2. Mike says:

    Calories in vs calories out. Right now I’m working nights (1130am-940pm), I ride my bike for my commute and I usually eat about 1000 calories when i get home (I don’t usually eat my calories back). What I find is that I when I wake up I’m not very hungry. I think our bodies are more intelligent than we understand.

    • Mikal says:

      I encourage you to check out “Good Calories Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes. Not as simple as calories in and calories out. Your bike activity likely negates your habits that would otherwise sabotage a sedentary lifestyle.

      • crackers8199 says:

        “Your bike activity likely negates your habits that would otherwise sabotage a sedentary lifestyle.”

        …which leads back to calories in vs calories out – his bike activity is burning more calories so he can eat more. it really is that simple.

  3. A says:

    hiya i eat late at night but its within my calorie intake for the day.

  4. Northwoods Dan says:

    It’s calories consumed throughout the day, which is often influenced by our food choices. Personally, I can’t sleep when I’m hungry. However, I eat non processed foods and leave some room in my calorie budget for a nutritious bed time snack and I have no problem staying within my budget and losing weight. When I used to eat processed food, all bets were off, no matter what time of day I ate. A few nuts and some fruit before bed help me sleep and I’ve stayed within budget throughout the day so long as I eat real food.

  5. Pete says:

    I used to work at night and so I had meals and activities at night or late night/early mornings. I never had 8 hours of sleep, mostly 6 or 7 hours and I maintained a slight calorie deficit. I was still gaining weight. I don’t work nights anymore, I sleep more and I maintain roughly the same calorie deficit. Now I’m losing weight. I would say anything done at night is ‘ab’normal and not going to help you lose weight.

  6. annie says:

    i never eat 5 hours before sleep time thats the most important thing that i learned from my diet plan, changing eating habbits really helpend me , i follow venus factor found on hop-reviews dot com

  7. Georgina says:

    I eat regularly eat before I go to bed but i chose low sugar healthy snacks such as oat cakes and a thin coating of almond butter. I have still managed to lose 3 stone as these late snacks are counted within my calories. Everyone is different.

  8. Kathy says:

    I am a night eater but I have learned to use my last snack of the day as my late night snack and I always choose something low in calories or I make sure it counts in my calorie count for the day And I have been losing it steadily now rough 2 to 3 pounds a week.

  9. carla says:

    I started logging my food before eating and then getting up and busy after dinner.

  10. It Depends That If
    You Are Working In Nights Shifts You Can Eat As Body Will Adjust Accordingly
    But If You Not Working In Night Then You Must Avoid Late Night Eating’s As Body
    Do Not Use Up All The Calories Eaten By You.

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