Is It Unhealthy To Eat Before Bed? Experts Explain
Health & Wellness
The answer isn’t always simple.
In a perfect world, you’d eat well-balanced meals on a consistent schedule. In reality, work, activities, and life in general have a way of throwing off those plans. If you find yourself hastily preparing a meal or snacking before hitting the sheets, it’s understandable to wonder, is it bad to eat before bed?
Experts admit that the answer isn’t clear. However, there is some data to suggest that eating before bed isn’t ideal. Here’s what you need to know.
How Can Eating Before Bed Impact Your Health?
There are a few different ways eating before bed can impact your health. “The actual nutrient intake and metabolism can disrupt sleep,” said sleep specialist and neurologist W. Christopher Winter, M.D. He pointed to a small-scale 2021 study of 30 nurses who worked night shifts. The study found the closer people ate before bed the night before, the more likely they were to feel sleepy the next day.
Research published in a 2021 issue of the British Journal of Nutrition also found that eating or drinking less than an hour before bed can increase the risk of having poor quality sleep. It may even cause people to sleep longer than their body requires. The study specifically found that people who ate or drank an hour before bed had more than twice the risk of waking up shortly after falling asleep, which is linked with insomnia and bad sleep quality.
“Eating is a potent zeitgeber, meaning that the consistent timing of our eating can be a strong positive cue for sleep or an unhealthy disruptor if we eat too [close to bed] or not at all,” Winter said. He added that certain foods like ones with spices and a high fat content can also mess with sleep.
Eating before bed can also contribute to acid reflux, which is a condition that happens when your stomach contents come back up into the esophagus, said nutritionist Keri Gans, R.D. Reflux can lead to symptoms such as heartburn, chest pain, nausea, problems swallowing, and a cough, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “For some people, eating close to bedtime may cause reflux, which can be uncomfortable as well as disturb their ability to sleep,” Gans said.
How Might Eating Before Bed Impact Your Weight?
Well, it depends. “There’s some association between eating a lot before bedtime and weight gain or difficulty losing weight,” said health coach Jessica Cording, R.D.
Research has tried to pinpoint exactly why this happens, and “what researchers find a lot is that people who eat later in the evening tend to be eating more calories overall than people who don’t eat quite as late,” she said.
What you eat matters, too. “Often, what people are eating late at night is snack foods or things that may be providing a lot of calories but not a lot of nutrients,” she said.
Gans agreed. “If you are consuming calories before bed that are excess calories, then you may gain weight,” she said. “If, however, these calories are simply part of your daily needs, then weight gain is less likely.”
When Should You Stop Eating Before Bed?
Again, it depends. Winter said he generally recommends people try to stop eating four hours or more before bed to lower the risk of poor sleep but, he admitted, it’s difficult to find research with an exact time that applies to everyone.
Reflux also tends to be worse the closer to bedtime a person eats, Winter said, noting that one 2007 study found that people who stopped eating six hours before bed had fewer symptoms than those who ate less than two hours before bed. But avoiding food that far in advance of bed can be tricky to pull off, especially when most people get hungry three or so hours after their last meal, Cording said.
But keep in mind, this is also individual.
“If you have no problems with reflux and are generally a good sleeper, you could possibly eat right before you go to sleep, and it won’t matter,” Gans said.
What To Do If You Feel Hungry Before Bed
There are some situations where you’ll need to eat before bed — maybe you got stuck at work late or just lost track of time and are now hungry. “That can be OK, as long as you’re mindful of what you’re eating,” Cording said.
She recommended eating a mix of fiber, vegetables, protein, and healthy fats. “I wouldn’t eat a huge meal or snack within an hour of going to bed,” she said.
If you’ve already eaten dinner, she suggested having a snack like a banana with nut butter or hummus and vegetables. “Keep in mind that things that are high in sugar or fat are harder to digest and can be disruptive to sleep,” Cording said.
If bedtime hunger is a regular thing for you, Gans suggested revisiting what you’re eating at dinner.
“Under-eating could lead to late-night hunger,” she said, recommending that you focus on eating a meal with a mix of fiber, healthy fat, and protein.
And, if you find that you’re craving something sweet, Gans said it’s best to reach for something like a piece of fruit with a spoonful of Greek yogurt to help get your fix and balance things out with protein.
But, again, if you feel hungry before bed and eating doesn’t seem to mess with your sleep or weight, you should be fine to do so, Cording said. “There is a lot of judgment about eating before bed and a thought that all nighttime eating is bad,” she said. “But every person has different needs.”
Words by Korin Miller