by Kaetlin Zink
Many of us refrain from late-night snacking out of fear that our metabolism slows after eating past a certain time in the evening, turning any undigested food before bedtime into fat.
Contrary to this popular belief, the truth is that our bodies never stop metabolizing (even during slumber), and time of day really has no effect on one’s metabolism, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Our caloric needs are different at different times of the day, however, which is important to keep in mind.
Let’s first discuss how this negative association between eating at night and weight gain come about.
Night Eating: The Stigma
Though it’s definitely not the case for everyone, many studies have highlighted how people who eat prior to bed are more likely to gain weight.
One explanation for this is the simple reason that people tend to have the biggest appetite at dinner when people are generally not as active (meaning they’re burning off less calories). Another big reason has to do with mindless eating that can start to rack up extra, unneeded calories while watching TV or working on your laptop.
Overconsumption at night can sometimes even go hand-in-hand with the issue of less-than-adequate consumption during the daytime. For instance, some people fail to eat enough during the day, which can cause them to feel extreme hunger at night to compensate for lack of daytime calories. This can often lead to overindulgence and unwanted weight gain.
Not only that, but it can also turn into a repetitive pattern of eating too much at night, then being too full to eat anything come morning, and again being overcome with hunger before bed the following evening, according to Healthline.
For the most part, weight gain from late-night snacking should be attributed to any unhealthy habits that typically accompany pre-bedtime routines, rather than an inability to fully metabolize.
Conventional Dietary Wisdom
Today, nutrition experts advise against worrying about what time of day to eat, expressing that a calorie is a calorie no matter what. This goes along with what is called the calorie in/calorie out theory of weight control, or the simple concept saying that weight gain occurs when we ingest more calories than we burn off throughout the course of the day.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Weight Control website, what really dictates weight gain, loss, or consistency is what and how much you eat, and how much physical activity you do throughout the entire day.
Now let’s take a look at some reasons why certain foods are more beneficial than others to eat before bedtime.
What to Eat and What Not to Eat Before Bed
While no food is considered ideal to have prior to bed, study findings indicate that a combination of complex carbs with some protein or a little fat is most likely the best way to go.
Complex carbohydrates like beans, rice, whole grains, fruits, pasta, and starchy vegetables contain fiber and other vitamins and minerals that are important for a healthy diet. Turns out, they also provide you with a constant energy source as you fall asleep.
Carbs have been found to promote sleep due to their role in strengthening tryptophan transportation (an amino acid), which can convert into neurotransmitters that aid in sleep regulation. Since this particular amino acid has been linked to improved sleep quality, some findings also suggest that foods high in tryptophan itself, such as dairy, poultry, fish, or red meat provide similar benefits.
Having this in conjunction with protein or a small amount of fat can then introduce the added benefits of remaining full throughout the night and maintaining blood sugar levels. The amino acids found in protein can also helps prevent the breakdown of muscles caused by overnight fasting.
Some recommended snack options for a complex carb, protein, or fat combo include things like grapes with cheese, apple slices with peanut butter, or whole grain crackers with turkey slices.
As for foods to avoid, it’s a good idea to steer away from anything high in unhealthy fats or sugars (junk foods or sweets like ice cream, pie, or chips). These foods can set off cravings, making it easy to exceed your daily caloric capacity. If you have an affinity for sweets, try replacing some less healthy options with a few pieces of dark chocolate or berries.
So instead of worrying about squeezing dinner into a specific time frame, try focusing on whether your late-night dinner/snack is pushing you past your limit for required caloric intake for the day. Remember, this should be dependent upon how many total calories you’re taking in and burning off throughout the day’s span.