Why Late-Night Eating Isn’t Actually So Bad

The idea that “when you eat” matters just as much as quality and quantity of it is a popular one.

Lots of research has proven that the 2-to-3-hour period after a workout, for example, is ideal for protein and carbohydrate consumption, as the body can most effectively metabolize food during this anabolic state — some studies suggest this period can last anywhere from 8 to 24 hours, depending on the workout and the individual’s metabolism.

So, if eating around a workout is so beneficial because your body is instantly using the calories you’re giving it, then eating before bed must be an automatic no-no, right? Well, no. Still, this concept has become quite the rage, in fact, over the last few years; it’s not uncommon to see even educated bodybuilder and athlete types avoiding calories altogether in the hours before going to sleep.

This is a mistake.

Yes, the type of calories that are usually consumed at this time are low-quality calories. This is dessert time, when a person is most likely to be on the couch, mindlessly destroying chips or cookies. Let’s say you do this the second you wake up instead. Would you really consider this “better?” Of course not. So chalking up weight gain because of nighttime eating in this case would not be telling the whole story. The quality and quantity of the food being eaten is what matters. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is not known for being the bastion of health knowledge we once thought it was, but we would side with it on its support of a “calorie-in, calorie-out” concept of eating to fight obesity.

Not everybody can sleep on a full stomach — loss of sleep or restlessness while digesting would be an example of bad evidence against nighttime eating. But the calorie consumption itself isn’t the culprit.  Sleep deprivation and the rise in cortisol levels that comes with it can affect body fat negatively. Ideally, you wouldn’t eat a large, energy-packed meal right before bed (so a stack of pancakes is out). But a small serving of cottage cheese or a protein shake? It’s highly unlikely these would contribute to body fat gain overnight.

Additionally, the concept of periodic eating every few hours seems to be ignored when considering nighttime eating. While eating these frequent small meals will not directly assist in weight loss, it does help prevent the gigantic binge meal most of us have at dinner after not having eaten in 6-8 hours. Consistent, frequent eating of small snacks regulates blood sugar and controls hunger. A real-life example of how not to do this would be swearing off all food after 8 p.m.; your best-case scenario (if you’re getting adequate sleep, eating your last bite at 8 p.m. and waking up with a forkful of food in your mouth) would be nine to 10 consecutive hours of fasting. Not exactly keeping in stride with the plan there, is it?

It can be intriguing to follow in-vogue nutrition concepts as the health and food industries continue to evolve, and research will continue to suggest new methods for people to try in the effort to control their physiques and health. But in this case, the relation to eating before bed and weight gain has mostly shown to be anecdotal, and more of an indictment against the amount and type of food being eaten than the time at which it is consumed.