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Is Eating Late At Night Bad For You?

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Midnight Munchies: Late Night Eating And Your Health

A midnight snack or a quick bite sounds seemingly harmless. But routine night-time eating could be masking other problems like sleep-related eating disorder or night-eating syndrome and may lead to issues like indigestion, acid reflux, morning anorexia, anxiety, and raised cholesterol levels. Seeking healthy alternatives like green tea, eating little and often, may help.

Do you find yourself sneaking into the kitchen late at night in search of food? Does your dinner time get pushed back because of hectic study or work schedules? If these sound all too familiar, you’ve also probably wondered what a late-night meal could do to your body and your health.

While late-night eating may not be the monster it is made out to be, there are certainly some pitfalls you should avoid. Here’s a look at how you can keep the damage from midnight binges to the minimum.

What Is Night-Time Eating?

Nibbling late into the night or consistently having your dinner close to bedtime are night-time eating habits you must be familiar with if you work shift timings or stay up late often. It could even be just an old habit that’s hard to kick. But could something more serious be driving this behavior?

According to a Washington Post article, if you’ve a night-time eating issue, you may wake up a couple of times a week just to grab something to eat. Also, about 25 percent of all your daily calorie intake happens close to sleep time after you have already had dinner.1

1. Night Eating Syndrome

One cause of this habit could be night eating syndrome (NES), which is marked by food consumption that’s heavily loaded toward the evening and night and close to bedtime.

If you lack an appetite for breakfast, consume more than half your day’s calories after 7 pm, and have issues with sleeping for 3 or more nights a week, you could have NES.2

2. Sleep-Related Eating Disorder

The other kind of night-time eating disorder is sleep-related eating disorder (SRED). Here, people are often unaware of their eating and the condition may be accompanied by other sleeping disorders like restless leg syndrome, somnambulism, and obstructive sleep apnea.3

This kind of problem needs to be treated as a sleep disorder by a doctor as you may not be able to make any conscious decisions about eating at night. You can, however, work on ways to sleep better at night.

What Are The Disadvantages Of Midnight Meals?

While these syndromes are something you should be wary about, thankfully, not all your eating stems from these reasons. Keeping these syndromes aside, is there still reason to worry?

While you may not need to hit the panic button if this is a rare habit for you, there are few very strong reasons for not making nocturnal snacking or night-time eating the norm.

1. Acid Reflux And Indigestion

Late-night eating may become a cause for concern when the food you eat at night is not easily digestible.

  • Consequently, going to sleep with a queasy, uneasy feeling disturbs your sleep.
  • The kind of food you eat can also mess with your digestive system and cause acid reflux.
  • It might the cause of gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), a condition that often causes heartburn, or indigestion at night. This is because food distends your stomach, increasing the likelihood of it backing up, or refluxing, into your esophagus, causing burning pain, nausea, dry cough, or a sore throat.4

2. Feeling Too Full For Breakfast

Filling your stomach up very late at night can make you feel full the next morning. This, in turn, can make you skip breakfast, something that’s called morning anorexia.5

Breakfast is the most important meal and revs up your metabolism. So skipping breakfast might make you so hungry by lunch time that you may eat way more than you should. This can then lead to delaying dinner – and the cycle continues.

A case in point is college-age young adults or working adults with busy schedules. They opt not to eat at all during the morning and their consumption patterns peak in the latter part of the day.

3. Storing Up Fat

Researchers suggest that irregular eating habits might be the cause of lipid disorders and obesity in industrialized nations.

As your metabolism slows down at night, the energy in meals consumed might be stored as body fat instead of being converted into energy for physical movement during the later and more active hours of the day.

In one study, otherwise healthy women were made to indulge in nighttime snacking for just 13 days. The habit was found to increase total cholesterol as well as bad LDL cholesterol. This could, therefore, raise the risk of obesity and adversely impact fat metabolism in the body.6

4. Eating Unhealthy Food

One reason late-night eating has such a dubious reputation is because it’s almost synonymous with overeating, binge eating, or eating junk food. When night-time eating has more to do with satisfying cravings and dealing with boredom than with actual hunger, it starts affecting your health.

In fact, studies have shown that people tend to choose more highly palatable items – sweet and salty foods that tend to be high in calories – when they’re tired, when they’ve restrained themselves all day, or if they want to relax after a long day’s work.

5. Disturbed Sleep

It goes without saying that waking up at night to grab a bite will disrupt your sleep. If you find yourself stirring more than a few times a week to answer the call of the hungry tummy rumble, something’s got to give.

Sleep is usually the first casualty, which is why NES is closely linked to insomnia.7

6. Anxiety And Psychological Distress

Individuals with NES who are not obese have been found to have anxiety and stress levels much higher than those who do not have NES. This may also result in the need to find coping mechanisms that are not very healthy, like substance abuse. Night anxiety is also common in adults who have NES.8

One piece of research shows how test subjects with NES who also awakened at night to eat (nocturnal snackers) had more depressive symptoms and lower mental-health-related quality-of-life scores than others. NES, in general, had a close link to high body mass index (BMI) and binge eating and was more common in males.

So yes, obesity is a very real problem to be concerned about when it comes to your night-eating habits.9

Late-Night Eating: Simple Rules For Doing It Right

Whatever the reason is for your night-time eating, taking some steps can help minimize the damage. Remember, it’s easy to get fixated on the when of night-time eating. But it is not just the time that dictates your health and well-being but what you eat and how much you eat as well.

  • Eat the right food. For instance, try a light salad, a few berries, a small serving of lean protein, some pumpkin seeds, or a cup of warm or nut milk.
  • Eat what you can digest easily. Heavy foods that are slow to digest can result in problems for those prone to indigestion. Skip fatty red meat, processed meats, a fried snack, packaged foods, sodas, or candy.
  • Eat early. Try to eat at least 3 hours before lying down to prevent GERD-linked discomfort.10
  • Create a balance among all your meals. Eat small meals at regular intervals and don’t skip one meal simply because you gorged on another.11 This helps your body maintain a rhythm.
  • Don’t eat because you are bored. And if you can’t avoid this, have a healthy, low-calorie midnight go-to option. Green tea, some skimmed or low-fat milk, warm water with lemon, or a few nuts, which won’t do you much harm nor pack on calories, are good options. A good supply of nutrients at bedtime can help promote positive physiological changes.12.
  • Do your calorie math. If nothing else works for you, keep count of your calories so you are aware of what eat.
  • Don’t overeat no matter what the time of day.
  • Indulge but also exercise. It is the calorie you eat versus the calorie you burn that matters the most.
  • Have a good reason for eating. Here’s how you can do that.

Questions To Ask Yourself

If you are required to be up and about at night, you need sustenance and nourishment as you would during the day. Don’t deny yourself that! All you need to do if you want to eat late at night is be wise about it. Ask yourself these:

  1. Is eating late at night a necessity or a habit?
  2. Are you really hungry or are you bored?
  3. Can you go to bed or do you absolutely need to stay up?
  4. Do you need to eat that bag of chips, cookies, or candy, or is there a better alternative?

The answers to these questions can help you make wise and informed decisions even in the wee hours of the night when you feel tired and muddled.

References   [ + ]

1. Why eating late at night may be particularly bad for you and your diet. The Washington Post.
2. Colles, S. L., J. B. Dixon, and P. E. O’brien. “Night eating syndrome and nocturnal snacking: association with obesity, binge eating and psychological distress.” International journal of obesity 31, no. 11 (2007): 1722-1730.
3, 5, 7. Zawilska, J. B., E. J. Santorek-Strumiłło, and P. Kuna. “Nighttime eating disorders–clinical symptoms and treatment.” Przeglad lekarski 67, no. 7 (2009): 536-540.
4, 10. Indigestion. NHS Choices. 2016.
6. Hibi, Masanobu, Ayumi Masumoto, Yuri Naito, Kahori Kiuchi, Yayoi Yoshimoto, Mai Matsumoto, Mitsuhiro Katashima, Jun Oka, and Shinji Ikemoto. “Nighttime snacking reduces whole body fat oxidation and increases LDL cholesterol in healthy young women.” American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology 304, no. 2 (2013): R94-R101.
8. Cleator, J., J. Abbott, P. Judd, C. Sutton, and J. P. H. Wilding. “Night eating syndrome: implications for severe obesity.” Nutrition & diabetes 2, no. 9 (2012): e44.
9. Colles, S. L., J. B. Dixon, and P. E. O’Brien. “Night eating syndrome and nocturnal snacking: association with obesity, binge eating and psychological distress.” International journal of obesity 31, no. 11 (2007): 1722-1730.
11. Late-Night Eating. MIT Medical.
12. Kinsey, Amber W., and Michael J. Ormsbee. “The health impact of nighttime eating: old and new perspectives.” Nutrients 7, no. 4 (2015): 2648-2662.
CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.

CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.