Okay, so we are all aware of what may as well be the number one rule of every diet: Do NOT Eat Before Bedtime!
But, is it true? Does eating close to bedtime make you fat?
Or, could it be an unfounded rumor, started merely to keep you from enjoying a few snacks before bed (AKA, your favorite time to enjoy a snack!)?
Let’s have a look and find out if eating before bed really is the sin of all dietary sins–or if, perhaps, there may be more to it than what we have been told.
It’s All About the Calories
So when you eat before bed, what happens? Does that leg of chicken you noshed during the last episode of “Big Bang Theory” you stayed up late watching simply bypass your digestive tract and go straight to your thighs?
Well no, it doesn’t.
For the most part, your calories count the same, no matter what time of day you consume them. What causes you to gain weight is consuming more calories per day than you can burn off.
However, that is “for the most part,” since there are limitations to the idea that you can eat what you want before bed, so long as you are staying within your daily calorie count.
For instance, you are more likely to dive into sugary, high-glycemic, processed foods at night, since they are the type of “reward” foods we tend to enjoy while relaxing. Unfortunately, when you do this, the quick-burning sugars provide calories faster than your body can use them, which means your body stores what it can’t use immediately as fat.
And, if you wait until evening to consume most of your calories, you may be setting yourself up for overeating. This is because when you are hungry all day, you are more likely to take in more calories than you need when you pile them all into one session—not to mention the devastating effect being hungry all day has on your metabolism and insulin response.
The bottom line? Yes, you can gain weight from eating before bed, although it is usually due to bad habits, rather than merely eating before sleeping.
What Happens When You Sleep After Eating?
When you sleep, you still burn calories. This is because your body still needs energy for such things as breathing, heartbeat, and changing positions during sleep.
However, there are a few bad habits that can lead to poor sleep quality, which in turn may lead to weight gain. These can include heartburn from consuming spicy foods, acid reflux for those who suffer from it or unknowingly ingesting caffeine in certain foods, such as chocolate.
Eating sugary, high-glycemic foods can also cause a blood sugar spike, which can make you more energetic and less able to fall asleep.
And, one side effect of a lack of sleep is higher levels of the hormone cortisol, which increases the likelihood of insulin resistance, which can lead to obesity, and even diabetes.
How Long to Wait to Sleep After Eating?
If you don’t consume more calories than you burn in a day, you shouldn’t have trouble managing your weight, even if you consume some of them before bed.
However, you need to make that “some of your calories,” and not “most of your calories” just before bed. More important than how long you wait before going to bed after eating is how often you eat during the day.
Here’s the thing: Spreading your calories throughout your day will help you avoid overeating before bed, and it can also help increase your metabolism.
And, if you are prone to heartburn you need to avoid foods which trigger it, since heartburn can disrupt your sleep.
Likewise, if you suffer from acid reflux, eating before bed will mean that there is more to “spill” into your esophagus, which makes eating before bed a strict no-no which can also disrupt your sleep.
And you need to be sure you are not mistakenly taking in stimulants right before bed, such as caffeine in chocolate ice cream or coffee-flavored treats. If you enjoy these types of foods, have them earlier in the day when you can allow plenty of time for the caffeine (or other stimulants) to pass through your system.
Remember, sleep deprivation leads to a poor insulin response, which leads to weight gain!
Good and Bad Foods Before Bed
Let’s stop and consider that when you are asleep, you are relaxed and not burning calories in the same torch-like manner you would if you were, say, running a marathon. What this means is that even though you can basically eat sugar cubes during a marathon and your body can utilize the calories immediately, the same isn’t true during the inactivity of sleep.
In fact, even if you stay within your calorie count, but consume sugary, high glycemic foods, your body simply cannot keep up with the kind of calories which either need to be burned NOW or stored—not unless you are hitting the gym in your sleep, anyway.
This means that some of the calories in that piece of pie you had before bed will be stored as fat, rather than burned, even though by having it, you didn’t even over eat
However, proteins, fats, and long-chain complex carbohydrates are metabolized much more slowly than simple sugars. This means that they also make your digestive system work harder—i.e. use more energy—to burn them, which, believe it or not, requires more calories.
And yes, you read that right: It takes calories to burn calories!
Plus, low-glycemic foods help you feel fuller sooner, and stay that way longer, which makes it harder for you to overeat.
The bottom line?
If you are eating late at night, keep your carbohydrates complex, your protein content high, and add some good, healthy balanced fats, such as are found in:
- Grass-fed beef
- Whole eggs
Oh, and adding fiber doesn’t hurt either since it will also help slow your digestion and help you feel full–not to mention help you maintain good digestive health.
In fact, some other foods high in both fiber and complex carbohydrates are:
- Whole grains, such as brown rice or bread made from whole grain flours (preferably organic, and WITH an expiration date!)
- Chia seeds
- Nut butters
- Slightly green bananas
So, while there may be some truth to the rule that eating before bed makes you fat, it has more to do with the bad habits which often accompany late night eating than anything else.
However, with a little discipline and the right kind of calories, there is no reason you can’t eat right up to bedtime with no adverse effects to your mid-section. Just remember to eat regularly throughout the day, stay within your calorie count, and avoid foods which are high on the glycemic index, such as processed sugar, processed white flour, or refined white rice.
And, be sure that you are not disrupting your sleep by eating too late, such as if you have heartburn, acid reflux, or enjoy foods which may have hidden stimulants in them.
As with all dieting, healthy eating and discipline is the key!