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Late Night Eating: Can it Cause Weight Gain?

In this article we will explore the commonly held belief that eating late at night causes weight gain. Is this myth or fact? And if it’s true, why does this happen? The relationship between eating time and weight change has been the subject of recent research. Let’s discuss what the research shows and how late night eating may affect your weight loss efforts.

Does Eating Late at Night Cause Weight Gain?

Based on recent research, it appears that there is a relationship between eating late and weight gain and there are likely multiple reasons for it.

  • Late bedtime – Eating late at night may also mean going to bed later. Studies show that persons who stay up later tend to eat more, approx. 500 calories more on average. And those extra calories are consumed late at night or in the early hours of the morning before bed. So a late bedtime leads to eating more total calories in a day, which causes weight gain.
  • Food preferences – Short sleep duration has been associated with an increased preference for carbohydrates and sweets – likely because the body is seeking out foods that provide quick energy in a state of sleep deprivation. Additionally, we tend to prefer higher calorie snack-type foods when eating late at night. This isn’t surprising – think about whether you prefer carrot sticks or potato chips at 11pm.
  • Short sleep duration – A late bedtime can also lead to a shorter time asleep, which has been linked to increases in the hunger hormone ghrelin and decreases in the fullness hormone leptin. These changes in appetite hormones can lead to increased caloric intake, which causes weight gain. Sleep deprivation can also zap our energy levels, making it less likely that we get regular exercise, another important component to weight management. 

Hormonal changes – In addition to the changes to hunger and fullness hormone signals mentioned earlier, eating closer to bedtime increases insulin and blood sugar levels at night and first thing in the morning. Insulin is a hormone that tells our body to store fat, so higher insulin levels encourage fat storage and weight gain.

Are There Other Ways that Eating Before Bed Bad For You?

Eating late at night can have adverse effects on your health in other ways as well. Dinner is typically our biggest meal of the day, and when you eat a big meal and then lay down, it increases the potential for acid reflux. Acid reflux (also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD) is when contents from your stomach come back up into your esophagus. Over time, GERD can cause serious problems such as inflammation of the esophagus, narrowing of the esophagus making it difficult to swallow, and even cancer.

Eating before bed can also increase blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. These effects can lead to an increased risk for type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, both of which increase the potential for developing heart disease.

Is it Possible to Lose Weight if I Eat Late at Night?

It’s certainly possible to lose weight if you eat late at night. Eating late at night is not the only factor in whether or not someone will be able to lose weight. While the research suggests that eating later can lead to weight gain, some of this effect is secondary to food choices when late-night snacking. If you are thoughtful about what you are eating, eating a reduced calorie diet, getting regular exercise and getting enough sleep, then it is likely that a later eating schedule will not stop you from losing weight. It is still important to keep in mind that there can be other negative effects to eating right before bed, so trying to eat more calories earlier in the day tends to be best for overall health.

What Strategies Can I Use to Combat Weight Gain from Eating Before Bed?

For many people, the time between dinner and bed can be very challenging when it comes to healthy eating. Here are some strategies you can adopt to have healthier habits during this time:

  • Check in with your hunger. If you find yourself seeking a snack after dinner, ask yourself why. Are you physically hungry? Or are you having a craving or eating out of habit? Try drinking 16 ounces of water and waiting 20 minutes. If you’re still hungry, choose a healthy snack like an apple or carrots with hummus if you prefer something crunchy.
  • Have balanced meals throughout the day. If you find yourself hungry at night, you may need to consider what you are eating earlier in the day. Having regular meals and snacks with protein, produce, and high-fiber carbohydrates throughout the day can help you to control your hunger through the evening.
  • Disconnect less healthful habits. For many people, evening TV watching goes hand-in-hand with eating. Try disconnecting these behaviors. Sip on some decaffeinated tea or keep your hands busy with an activity like knitting. Or change the TV habit altogether! An after-dinner walk helps you to avoid evening eating and is also good for digestion.  It also helps you get in some additional physical activity for the day!
  • Keep a healthy food environment. It’s very difficult to avoid eating less healthful snacks at the end of a long day. Keep tempting foods outside of your home instead of relying on willpower. If your family insists on having them in the house, keep them out of sight and have more healthful options readily available and visible for those times when you need a snack.
  • Go to bed earlier. This may be easier said than done, but having an earlier bedtime is a good habit for many reasons. You will eat less in the evening and get more sleep – both of which are good for your health! If you have always stayed up late, try setting small goals to go to bed earlier – even 15 or 30 minutes is a good start. Slowly make your bedtime earlier until you’ve reached your desired bedtime. Put a reminder on your phone that goes off when you need to get ready for bed to remind you that it’s time to wind down.
  • Offer yourself self-compassion. Changing a late night eating habit, especially after years of practice, can be hard. If you have a few nights where you manage to avoid having a late night snack, but then it happens again, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, recognize that this will be a process and celebrate your successes. Be curious about what made some nights possible and some nights hard, and then move on. Tomorrow is a new day and you can try again with all the tools reviewed above.
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