“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?
WHAT THE EVIDENCE SAYS
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.
STRESS AND THE LATE-NIGHT MUNCHIES
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.
READ MORE > 10 SIMPLE SNACKS UNDER 200 CALORIES
WHEN EATING LATE IS A HEALTH CONCERN
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.
LATE-NIGHT MUNCHING STRATEGY
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.