Many people think it’s a bad idea to eat before bed.
This often comes from the belief that eating before you go to sleep leads to weight gain. However, some claim that a bedtime snack can actually support a weight loss diet.
So what should you believe? The truth is, the answer isn’t the same for everyone. It depends a lot on the individual.
Eating before bed is controversial
Whether you should eat before bed — defined as between dinner and bedtime — has become a hot topic in nutrition.
Conventional wisdom says that eating before bed could cause weight gain because your metabolism usually slows down when you fall asleep. This could increase the likelihood that the calories will be stored as fat.
Alternatively, some health experts say that eating before bed is perfectly fine and may improve sleep or weight loss.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that many people are unsure of what the best option is.
Part of the problem is that there’s evidence to support both sides of the argument.
Although many people believe that a slower metabolism during sleep leads to weight gain, your nighttime basal metabolic rate is almost as high as during the day. Your body still needs plenty of energy while you sleep (1).
There’s also limited evidence supporting the idea that calories count more before bedtime than they do at any other time of the day (2).
Even though there seems to be no physiological reason, several studies have linked eating before bed with weight gain (3, 4, 5).
So what’s going on here? The reason is probably not what you expect.
Eating before bed is controversial. Even though there’s no definitive physiological reason why eating before bed would cause weight gain, several studies have found evidence that it might.
It may lead to unhealthy habits
The current evidence shows no definitive physiological reason why eating before bed should cause weight gain. However, several studies show that people who eat before bed are more likely to gain weight (3, 4, 5).
The reason for this is much simpler than you might expect. It turns out that people who eat before bed are more likely to gain weight simply because a bedtime snack is an extra meal and, therefore, extra calories.
Not only that, but the evening is the time of day when some tend to feel the hungriest.
Research has also found that those who experience stress tend to see a rise in ghrelin — the hunger hormone — in the evening. This makes it even more likely that a bedtime snack will end up pushing your calorie intake over your daily calorie needs (6, 7, 8).
There are those who like to snack at night while watching TV or working on their laptops, and it’s no surprise that these habits might lead to weight gain.
Plus, some people become extremely hungry before bed because they didn’t eat enough during the day.
This extreme hunger can cause a cycle of eating too much before bed, then being too full to eat much the next morning, and again becoming overly hungry before bed the next evening (9).
This cycle, which can easily lead to overeating and weight gain, highlights why many individuals should eat balanced meals during the day.
It would seem that the problem with eating at night isn’t explicitly linked to your metabolism switching to storing calories as fat at night. Instead, weight gain can be caused by bedtime snacking, which increases your caloric intake.
Eating before bed can cause weight gain because of habits like eating while watching TV or consuming too many extra calories before bed.
It’s not good if you have acid reflux
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a common condition that affects 18.1 to 27.8 percent of people in the United States. It happens when gastric contents such as stomach acid splash back into your throat (10).
- difficulty swallowing
- a lump in the throat
- dental erosions
- chronic cough
If you have any of these symptoms, you may want to avoid eating before bed because lying down makes it much easier to regurgitate (10).
Therefore, if you have reflux, it’s a good idea to avoid eating anything for at least 3 hours before lying down in bed (11).
Additionally, you might want to avoid drinking or eating anything containing caffeine, alcohol, tea, chocolate, or hot spices. All of these foods can aggravate symptoms.
People who have acid reflux should not eat anything for at least 3 hours before bedtime. They may also want to avoid trigger foods, which can cause symptoms to worsen.
While eating before bed may not be the best idea for some people, it can benefit others — it may actually curb nighttime eating and aid weight loss.
Some evidence suggests that, rather than causing weight gain, eating a bedtime snack may help some people lose weight.
If you’re someone who tends to eat a big portion of your calories after dinner, having a structured snack after dinner instead of continually “grazing” can help to manage your appetite and may prevent overeating (12, 13).
In one 4-week study of adults who were night-snackers, participants who began eating one bowl of cereal and milk 90 minutes after dinner ate an average of 397 fewer calories per day (13).
Ultimately, participants lost an average of 1.85 pounds (0.84 kilograms) from this change alone (13).
This study suggests that adding a small after-dinner snack may help night-snackers feel satisfied enough to eat less than they would otherwise. Over time, it may also have the possible benefit of weight loss.
Getting enough sleep is very important, and sleep deprivation has been linked to overeating and weight gain (5, 14, 15).
There’s no evidence that a small, healthy snack before bed leads to weight gain. Just keep in mind your total daily calorie intake.
Therefore, if you feel that eating something before bed helps you fall asleep or stay asleep, it’s OK to do so.
Stabilized morning blood sugar
In the morning, your liver starts to produce extra glucose (blood sugar), which provides you with the energy you need to start the day.
This process causes scarcely any change in blood sugar for people without diabetes. However, some people with diabetes can’t produce enough insulin to manage the extra glucose from the blood.
For this reason, people with diabetes may wake up in the morning with high blood sugar, even if they haven’t eaten anything since the night before. This is called the Dawn Phenomenon (16, 17).
Other people may experience nocturnal hypoglycemia or low blood sugar during the night, disturbing sleep (18).
If you experience either of these phenomena, you might need to talk to your healthcare provider about adjusting your medication.
A few studies have also suggested that a snack before bedtime may help prevent these changes in blood sugar by providing an additional energy source to help get you through the night (18, 19, 20).
However, since the research is mixed, it’s best to speak with your healthcare provider to decide what is best for you.
Having a structured bedtime snack may be beneficial, causing you to eat less at night or sleep better. It might also help to manage your blood sugar in some instances.
What should you eat before bed?
For most people, it’s perfectly OK to have a snack before bed.
There’s no recipe for the perfect bedtime snack, but there are some things you should keep in mind.
While eating before bed isn’t necessarily a bad thing, loading up on traditional dessert foods or junk foods such as ice cream, pie, or chips isn’t a good idea.
These foods, which are high in unhealthy fats and added sugars, trigger cravings and overeating. They make it very easy to exceed your daily calorie needs.
Eating before bed doesn’t necessarily make you gain weight, but filling up on these calorie-dense foods before bed certainly can, and it’s best to limit them.
If you have a sweet tooth, try some berries or a few squares of dark chocolate (unless the caffeine bothers you). Or, if salty snacks are what you prefer, have a handful of nuts instead.
The bottom line
Eating a snack before bed is fine for most people, but you should try to avoid eating excessively. Stick to minimally processed, nutrient-rich foods that may help you stay within your desired calorie limit for the day.