Are you a late eater? Do you eat way past the time most people sit down for their meal or right before bed? We all know that after a big meal you can go into sort of a food and turning in for the night seems like the best idea ever. I mean, it is late after all.
But what about this myth that if you eat past 7 PM, or right before you go to sleep, you’re going to gain weight. I’ve heard this for years and from a ton of people. I’ve always wondered if this was true, or if it was some old wives’ tale to keep children and people from snacking.
I think it’s about time we found out once and for all.
Where it all began
In a study conducted by Northwestern University researchers, it was established that nighttime eating led to twice as much weight gain***. While that was a very informative study, it was actually conducted on mice and not people. This might be the origin of this theory.
But what about humans? What happens when you consistently eat before you sleep? The following five points will separate myth from fact and help you answer that question.
#1 Food and weight: how do they relate?
The relationship between food and weight is not as obvious as you might think. Most people think that the more you eat, the more weight you gain. But that is not necessarily the case. First of all, you need to understand that our bodies need energy and we get the energy by consuming foods and drinks. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an active 19 to 20-year-old male requires 3,000 kilocalories (kcal) of energy while a sedentary 76-year-old only requires 2,000 kcal. For females, the values are 2,400 and 1,600 respectively**.
Now, if you consume food that offers more calories than what your body ideally needs, the excess will be stored as fat. Experts estimate that 3,500 kcal is equivalent to one pound of body fat**. That means every time you ingest food that has excess calories to a tune of 3,500 kcal you are adding one pound of fat (weight) to your body. The interesting part is that it doesn’t matter what time you eat. The only important things are how much you eat and the activities that you partake to do away with the excess calories***.
#2 What about eating and going to sleep?
The conventional belief among health and diet experts is that a calorie is a calorie and that doesn’t change with time. It doesn’t matter whether you eat at 6 AM or 11 PM; the calorie will have the same effect on your body. That assertion (referred to as the “calorie in/calorie out theory”) is based on the fact that your body does not process food any differently at night, even when you are asleep*****. Actually, it requires quite a lot of energy (and therefore food) to maintain all the biological functions. More precisely, when you are asleep the body needs energy for resting metabolic rate (BMR) – sustaining normal body functions like breathing and thinking; and diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT) – which includes functions like digestion, metabolizing, transport, and storage of food and drink.
Therefore, the takeaway point here is that you should figure out the exact amount of calories that your body needs and then consume just that. Your meals’ timing is not a big factor as far as weight is concerned.
#3 It is really a matter of energy balance and not sleep
That’s right, know how much energy your body needs so you know how many calories to eat. Sleeping itself does not lead to weight gain in any way**. The reason why most people gain unwanted weight is because they eat food that has a lot of calories and since the excess cannot be broken down to form energy, the body stores it as fat.
That boils down to poor eating habits. Not timing.
The reason why dietitians recommend that you shouldn’t eat at night is due to the fact that most night eating has little or nothing to do with hunger and more to do with satisfying cravings or coping with stress and boredom***. That is why some people usually end up eating a whole carton of snacks when they’re not hungry, which contributes too taking in way more calories than needed. The situation becomes even worse when you are eating as you do a fun activity like watching TV because you won’t keep track of your eating. I know I’ve finished a bag of chips more than once while watching a movie even when I didn’t mean to.
#4 Your bodily rhythm is a factor to consider
Although sleeping might not be the reason why you are gaining weight after night eating, your bodily rhythm might be. When you have a certain routine, your body conditions itself to perform activities like digestion at particular times****. For example, if you are used to having dinner at 6 PM, the body might schedule its digestive activities two or three hours after the meal. If for some reason you throw in a meal or huge snack at 11 or 12 PM you will alter the normal routine. That might lead to digestion and other health-related issues (like indigestion). Apart from packing in a lot of extra pounds, you might also feel sickly.
#5 But sleep MIGHT have some influence on weight
Surprisingly, there is a study** that suggests people who sleep well are less likely to gain unnecessary weight compared to those who suffer from sleep deprivation. The study holds that if you suffer from sleep deprivation the level of the hormone leptin will be low in your body while that of the hormone ghrelin will be high. That imbalance will make you feel hungry even when you shouldn’t be.
The Bottom Line
It is totally okay to eat before you sleep. However, make sure you only eat what your body needs. Any excess will be stored as fat. Please note that if you are on a weight-loss program, then there is a legitimate reason to have all your meals before 8 PM. That will help regulate your blood sugar which in turn will give you control over the feeling of hunger.
* – http://www.webmd.com/diet/obesity/obesity-health-risks#1
** – Does sleeping after a meal lead to weight gain? Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/experts-sleep-after-meal-weight/
*** – Diet Truth or Myth: Eating at Night Causes Weight Gain. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/diet-truth-myth-eating-night-causes-weight-gain#1
**** – Science Explains How Eating Right Before Bed Can Cause Weight Gain. Retrieved from http://elitedaily.com/life/eating-before-bed/1212623/
***** – Myth Debunked: Late-Night Eating Does Not Cause Weight Gain. Retrieved from http://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/fitness/myth-debunked-late-night-eating-does-not-cause-weight-gain.html
Photo: Billy Winson, CC