If you find yourself craving a snack before bedtime, you’re not alone—surveys show that about 60 percent of American adults snack after 8 p.m. But is this good for you?
Your diet may affect your sleep patterns in a few different ways, so it turns out the answer to this question may be more complicated than you think. According to researchers, it may depend more on what you’re eating rather than when you’re eating when it comes to nighttime snacks.
In this article, we’ll take a look at both the positive and negative impacts of nighttime eating, the best and worst snacks to eat before bed, and the best time to stop eating for the night.
Things to Consider When Eating Before Bed
Here are some things to keep in mind if you are considering whether or not to eat before bed.
Daytime Eating Habits
It’s important to know that eating big meals or snacking at night can also affect how you eat during the day. For example, studies show that people who eat large meals or evening snacks tend to skip or eat smaller breakfasts the next day.
Skipping or skimping on food earlier in the day may lead to feeling hungrier at night, which can keep you in a cycle of needing to eat late at night.
Food Consumed Before Bed
We will cover this in-depth later in the article, but keep in mind that what you choose to eat before bed is really important. Fatty, sugary, and high-carb foods tend to have more negative effects, while low glycemic nutrient-dense snacks might even be beneficial for some.
By limiting the junk food you keep around the house, it may be easier to cut down on late-night snacking.
Personal Caloric Needs
Whether nighttime eating is good or bad for you may also largely depend on what you eat during the day. One of the pitfalls of nighttime eating can be that it adds to your total caloric intake, so it’s a good idea to keep this in mind when choosing a nighttime snack.
If you’re someone who has a goal of losing weight, you may find that late night snacking could be connected to some of those pesky pounds that you’re having trouble shedding.
Potential Benefits of Eating Before Bed
With these downsides of snacking at night, it may surprise you to hear that some research suggests potential benefits of eating before bedtime. Here are a few of the possible benefits of a nighttime snack.
Better Sleep with Melatonin and Tryptophan
Melatonin is a hormone that helps with the timing of your circadian rhythms and your sleep cycle. It is naturally produced by your brain in response to darkness. This hormone is synthesized in the body by an essential amino acid called tryptophan, or L-tryptophan, that is found in all animals.
Exposure to light can interfere with your natural melatonin production. This can be a real problem if you spend your nights looking at screens, like many people do—low levels of melatonin can disrupt your natural sleep cycle. Luckily, there are many natural sources of melatonin and tryptophan that may help boost your sleep quality.
Almonds are a good source of melatonin, as are walnuts. Turkey and chicken are great sources of tryptophan, which can boost melatonin production. Tart cherry juice is also a good source of melatonin, and is shown to promote sleep.
If you are hungry at night, reaching for one of these snacks may help give your body a little boost of melatonin or melatonin-synthesizing tryptophan.
Stabilized Morning Blood Sugar
People with diabetes may experience what’s known as the “dawn phenomenon,” which is an episode of hyperglycemia in the early morning. Typically, your blood sugar and insulin levels remain steady throughout the night, with a small increase in insulin secretion before dawn which helps prevent hyperglycemia in the morning.
People with diabetes may not experience this natural insulin surge, often because their bodies don’t make as much insulin, or they aren’t able to use it properly. Nocturnal hypoglycemia can also be a factor that affects people with diabetes.
While some studies have shown that eating before bed may help prevent these blood sugar high and lows for certain people such as those with type 1 diabetes on insulin, more research is needed to establish a direct link or how this might apply to other populations. If you experience blood sugar highs and lows in the morning or at night, talk to your doctor about the best approach.
Negative Effects of Eating Before Bed
While some people may experience positive effects when having a snack before bedtime, others may see some negative effects. Here are some potential downsides to eating before bed.
Acid Reflux and Heartburn
Acid reflux is a gastrointestinal condition that occurs when stomach acid travels back into your esophagus, which is the tube that connects your mouth and stomach. This condition causes an unpleasant sensation known as heartburn.
Because lying down can worsen the symptoms of acid reflux, eating right before you get into bed can exacerbate heartburn. If you have acid reflux, you may want to avoid eating at least 3 hours before bedtime.
Certain Foods May Cause Poor Sleep
Some foods may interfere with your quality of sleep. Spicy foods, for example, can worsen acid reflux symptoms while lying down. They’ve also been shown to increase your body temperature, which has been linked to poor sleep quality.
Foods containing added sugar and refined carbs, such as sodas, instant noodles, fast foods, and desserts, are thought to interfere with sleep quality among both adults and adolescents. High intakes of trans fats, calories, and fatty foods may also contribute to insomnia.
One 2021 randomized controlled trial showed that eating dinner early (by 6 p.m.) had a positive effect on blood glucose levels compared with eating dinner late (at 9 p.m.).
In one study, over 2,000 people were monitored over a period of six years. About eight percent of the subjects were known to eat or snack at night. After six years, those nocturnal eaters were more likely to have lost teeth, even when controlling for other factors like smoke, age, body mass, and carbohydrate consumption.
Does Eating Before Bed Make You Gain Weight?
There is no definitive answer on whether eating before bed makes you gain weight. In fact, the answer to this question will likely depend on many different factors that are unique to you and your body.
Multiple studies show that eating late at night can result in weight gain. But this may not be just about eating late at night and more about the overall dietary pattern.
One study looked at what they called a “delayed” eating pattern where healthy weight individuals ate three meals and two snacks eating from noon to 11 p.m. for eight weeks. These individuals also underwent a “daytime” eating pattern where they ate three meals and two snacks between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.
There was a two-week washout period between the two experiments to make sure there was no carry-over effect. Other factors like sleep were kept constant between the experiments.
They found that compared to eating earlier in the day, the delayed eating pattern was associated with:
- increased weight
- increased insulin and cholesterol levels
- impaired fat metabolism
- worsened glucose regulation
- hormonal markers associated with heart disease and diabetes
As mentioned earlier, people who eat late at night also tend to skip breakfast more frequently than people who don’t. Studies show that skipping breakfast can have many negative health effects, including weight gain and obesity.
On the flip side, there is some evidence that snacking around bedtime may actually cause some people to lose weight. One study had participants eat a serving of cereal with low-fat milk 90 minutes after their evening meal. Researchers found that this “structured” nighttime snack reduced participants' total caloric intake for the day, which promoted weight loss.
Does Eating Before Bed Slow Your Metabolic Rate?
You may have heard that your metabolic rate slows down during sleep. However, your body still needs energy while you sleep.
During normal sleep, your metabolic rate will only slow down about 15 percent because of the natural slowing of activity while you sleep.
One study found that eating protein before bed increased metabolic rate the next day in active, college-aged men.
Does Eating Before Bed Cause Indigestion?
Whether or not you get indigestion from eating before bed will likely depend on what type of foods you eat. Alcoholic beverages, coffee and caffeine, carbonated drinks, spicy food, fatty and greasy foods, and very acidic foods, like tomatoes and oranges, can all cause indigestion.
Overeating or eating too fast can also lead to indigestion. As we mentioned earlier, some studies have shown that eating before bed or before laying down may be linked to heartburn in people who have gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Things to Avoid Consuming Before Bed
Regardless of your diet and eating habits, sometimes you may simply feel hungry at nighttime. If you feel the need to snack before bed, here are some things you may want to avoid.
You may think that since alcohol is a sedative, drinking it before bed can help you fall asleep. Unfortunately, studies show that drinking alcohol can poorer quality sleep overall, particularly during the second half of the night.
Alcohol is associated with sleep disturbances, lower slow wave sleep, and more REM sleep than is normal. A recent 2021 study of 11,905 healthy adults found that high alcohol consumption is associated with poorer sleep quality, shorter sleep duration, and a higher chance of snoring.
This one may seem obvious, as many of us use caffeine to feel more energized in the mornings. But you may be surprised to learn that drinking caffeine even six hours before bedtime can significantly disrupt sleep.
This is partly because daytime caffeine consumption can result in reduced 6-sulfatoxymelatonin, which is a molecule needed for the body to metabolize melatonin. However, this isn’t necessarily true for everyone, and your sensitivity to coffee can be influenced by genetics and other medical conditions.
But if you do find that coffee during the day keeps you up at night, you might want to limit or avoid it.
Best Late Night Snacks to Eat Before Bed
When it comes to eating before bed, some snacks may be better than others. As mentioned earlier, avoiding or limiting fatty foods, spicy foods, and added sugars may help you avoid heartburn, trouble falling asleep, and dental problems.
So, what should you eat when you’re looking for a midnight snack? Researchers advise that eating small, nutrient-dense snacks rather than large meals may be the best way to avoid potential negative effects of late-night snacking.
Fiber moves slowly through your digestive system, which can help you feel full and avoid the late-night overeating that can cause weight gain. As mentioned earlier, eating some protein before bed can also help keep you satiated throughout the night and won’t lead to large glucose spikes.
It may also be a good idea to consider daytime eating habits that might have increased your late-night cravings. Are you fueling well enough for your workouts? Are you skipping meals earlier in the day?
If you’re not sure, you may consider consulting a registered dietitian who can help you better answer this question.
What is the Best Time to Eat Before Bed?
What time you should stop eating will depend on your day—when you ate your last meal, what time you usually go to bed, and what you have eaten throughout the day.
According to researchers, a good rule is to stop eating at least three hours before bedtime. This can help reduce your risk for acid reflux, and help avoid feelings of hunger that can disrupt your sleep.
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Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.