Let’s say you’re my client. It’s the first time we meet, and we’re talking about your eating habits. As you’re telling me what you usually eat and when, you mention that there’s something you do that you probably shouldn’t… you always eat a snack right before you go to bed. You expect me to tell you that it’s a habit you should break, but before I weigh in on the subject, I’ll want to know more. What do you eat? How much? Are you eating because you’re hungry? Or is it just a habit? And, if you don’t eat before you go to sleep, what happens? Once I’ve got a better picture of your nighttime noshing, I’m in a better position to say if it’s right or wrong.
That said, I do – in general – discourage people from eating right before bed. For one thing, if your bedtime snacking is routinely taking you over your daily calorie budget, it’s a habit worth kicking. And, unless your snack is really small, light and easy to digest, lying down soon after you eat a sizeable snack is a recipe for heartburn – and possibly a disrupted night’s sleep.
But, while it is a habit that I tend to discourage, especially in my overweight patients, bedtime snacking isn’t always “bad” – and might even do you some good.
Bedtime eating is okay if… you’re trying to gain weight
Many people who are trying to gain weight struggle with a less-than-voracious appetite – and may not feel hungry often enough to boost their calorie intake through multiple meals. But most find that with a long enough stretch between dinner and bedtime, they actually look forward to a small bedtime snack.
Bedtime eating is okay if… you’ve saved some of your calories for something small and light
I’ve said it before, and I will say it again. Foods aren’t any more fattening when they’re eaten at 9pm than they are if they’re eaten at 9am. So, eating right before you go to bed isn’t a problem as long as it doesn’t cause you to exceed your calorie limit for the day. Some people do this because their habit is to eat a small dinner early in the evening, and then stay up pretty late – so they do get a bit hungry before bed.
Bedtime eating is okay if… you sleep better when you have a snack
Maybe you find that you don’t sleep well unless you eat “a little something” before you hit the sack. It could be. A small snack at bedtime may help to rebalance your hunger hormones. Normally, your body’s production of ghrelin (a hormone that increases hunger) is suppressed when you eat, coupled with an increase in the production of leptin – a hormone that tells your body you’re satisfied. If the balance of the two is off, a light snack might put you back on course.
Bedtime eating is okay if… you’ve got an athletic event in the morning
If you’re an endurance athlete, and you’ve got a big event the next day, a high carbohydrate snack before bed is easy to digest, and can help you to top off fuel tank for your morning activity.
Bedtime eating is okay if… you’re trying to gain muscle
Strength training builds muscle, of course. But you can’t adequately bulk up unless your body has enough protein to work with – which is why most weightlifters know to take in some protein after a bout of pumping iron. The building blocks of protein – amino acids – are what your body uses to build up muscle tissue, and your body depends on having plenty of amino acids available. It stands to reason, then, that once your dinner has been digested and absorbed, the amino acid levels in your bloodstream will likely decline during night – which could slow down the muscle building process. But a recent study1 showed that having a high protein drink before bed can increase circulating levels of amino acids, which boosted the rate of muscle protein synthesis during the night.
¹Res PT et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 44:1560;2012.
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.