Is nighttime snacking making you fat and miserable?
Health buzz would have you think so. One of the trendiest, soundbite-friendliest weight loss mandates out there right now is that eating before bed causes weight gain — and that the fix is to simply stop eating a few hours before bed, at 8 p.m. or so, to drop pounds.
At a glance, the idea’s got a solid-enough foundation: A spate of alarming studies have linked late-night eating before bed to poor exercise habits, higher body mass indexes and higher obesity risks.
Then, there’s the recent rise of intermittent fasting, a buzzy, celeb-favored weight-loss method (Kourtney Kardashian and Chris Hemsworth are reportedly fans). It restricts eating to a small window of time during the day, which often logically translates to squeezing mealtimes in between late morning and early evening, and limiting eating before bed.
Couple those with the many, many scientific theories about fat burning — one of which suggests that our bodies work less hard to torch fat at night — and dieters’ enduring need for a quick fix, and suddenly, padlocking the fridge after 8 p.m. seems to make a lot of sense.
But not all experts are sold.
Michael Ormsbee, a professor of nutrition, food and exercise sciences at Florida State University, has been researching eating before bed for nearly a decade — and he’s certain that there still isn’t enough evidence to prove that late-night snacking causes weight gain.
There is “this dichotomy between what [everyone’s been saying] and what I saw athletes doing: eating late at night and still having abs,” says Ormsbee. “It really depends what you’re eating, and how much.”
His research has found that a small amount of protein — he used around 200 calories-worth of cottage cheese in one study — 30 minutes before bed will have no effect on a person’s metabolism.
In fact, he says, a little late-night eating might even benefit you, if you pick the right foods.
For example, if you exercise regularly, eating a little protein before bed can help you build muscle without gaining fat, according to his 2018 paper in the British Journal of Nutrition.
Also, for a seemingly easy fix, cutting out food after dinner is kind of miserable, says Rob Hart, a Staten Islander who experimented with intermittent fasting two months ago.
“All I could think about was what I would be eating as soon as noon hit,” says the 36-year-old author. “It became too much.”
Not being able to eat and drink at late-night networking gatherings was cramping his style. In the mornings, he felt faint after not eating for 12 hours.
“It’s not like I suddenly magically dropped a whole bunch of weight out of nowhere,” he says, “and it was not worth me being annoyed for most of my morning.”
All that said, don’t eat a full, 600-calorie meal in bed, says Marie-Pierre St-Onge, professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University.
“You’re going to bed, which is a sedentary behavior,” says St-Onge, who, like Ormsbee, is a longtime sleep-nutrition researcher. Even if the specifics of fat-torching are up for debate, she says, it’s clear that people burn fewer calories when they sleep — and may cause unpleasant digestive side effects.
“I would advise against anything heavy and high in fat before going to bed because it’s more difficult to digest . . . and may cause heartburn and difficulty falling asleep,” says St-Onge. And remember, some research also points out that not sleeping enough is linked to weight gain.
Ormsbee agrees that big, high-calorie meals aren’t good bedtime snacks. He also advises against foods that might cause an acid reflux reaction, such as spicy foods, tomatoes or citrus fruits.
But neither researcher would put snacking totally off-limits.
“Having a piece of fruit before bed might not be a bad idea,” says St-Onge. Some of her research has even found that tart cherries and kiwis may actually improve quality of sleep — which brings us right back to that aforementioned research about sleeping well and slimming down.
A (modest) late-night snack might even help if you’re trying to lose weight. A 2004 study found that people who had the option of small bowl of cereal before bed actually burned more calories throughout the day than those who were cut off after dinner.
“The thinking was that they were told they could eat later, so they didn’t overeat at dinner,” Ormsbee says.
The scientists agree that tart cherries, kiwis, cottage cheese and milk are among the best foods to eat late at night — and that the thought of hungry dieters lying restless without a snack to lull them to sleep is frankly too much for them to bear.
“[Eating before bed] beats the alternative . . . waking up [hungry] in the middle of the night,” says St-Onge.
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