Many people's evening ritual consists of unwinding after a long day, and one of the ways people unwind is by endlessly snacking! A bedtime snack (or two, or three) is a way many people cope with a busy, stressful day. Yet, you've most likely heard that eating late at night is a huge no-no! But why exactly is it so bad? Are your late-night snacks really coming between you and your fitness goals?
We're here to help answer the questions you've been so curious about! And some of the facts we've found may come as a surprise... So, let's get started and find out if nighttime eating is bad or a myth!
The impacts of eating before bed
Eating before bed has been a controversial topic for a very long time, but not many people understand the impacts it can have on one's health and fitness goals. There are three areas where eating at night can affect you - your digestion, your sleep, and your weight. However, the impact might not be as bad as you think...
Believe it or not, our bodies are perfectly capable of multi-tasking, in fact, they're constantly doing multiple things at once! So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that our bodies are able to sleep and digest at the same time. Digestion is an autonomic function, this means that it doesn't require you to be awake in order to breakdown the food you've eaten throughout the day. If that's the case, then how does it impact your digestion - if at all?
Although sleep doesn't impact your digestion, feasting at night can cause heartburn or acid reflux due to the way the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is set up. Heartburn is usually triggered when the contents of the stomach and digestive juices flow back up into the esophagus through the muscular valve called the esophageal sphincter. Another way it's triggered includes eating and lying down, basically, going to bed with a full stomach. This happens because lying horizontally causes the contents of the stomach to flow back up through your esophagus and cause uncomfortable heartburn. To minimize the chances of this happening avoid eating at night or sit up and walk around the house before getting in bed to help get the digestion process underway!
Another way your late-night snacking can impact your digestion is it can cause dyspepsia, in simpler terms, an upset stomach. Typically snacking at night involves, eating foods (most of the time overeating) that are high in fat, carbohydrates, and/or spicy, it can also involve caffeinated or carbonated drinks! All these things can trigger indigestion which can lead to unpleasant symptoms that you may feel that night till the next day! Symptoms include nausea, stomach pain, bloating, or burning in the abdomen. Fortunately, this usually only happens if you eat or drink something that may be unhealthy (like the examples mentioned above). So, to reduce your risk of dyspepsia avoid having a large meal that is high in fats, carbs, and sugar, and stay away from carbonated and caffeinated drinks. In general, a small healthy snack at night might not impact you negatively, but if you're eating a hefty meal or an insane amount of snacks that aren't healthy then for your tummy's sake - cut the habit!
And a quick word of warning, those with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may want to avoid eating before bed altogether. GERD is a digestive disease that causes stomach acid to splash back into your throat which can cause heartburn, difficulty swallowing, and even worsening nighttime asthma worse. Eating at night can possibly worsen your symptoms, cause indigestion, and disrupt your sleep, so consider avoiding eating at night completely if you have GERD!
There are so many things that can disrupt your sleep including working out late at night, caffeine intake, anxiety, and even your bedtime snack! If you regularly have your last meal or a snack before bed and have trouble sleeping then the culprit might just be your eating habits at night!
But, how does eating at night impact your sleep quality? It actually has to do with what we talked about in the previous section! As we know, there are relatively no issues with the body digesting and sleeping at the same time, but overeating certain foods can trigger an upset stomach, heartburn, or acid reflux. This can make it harder for you to stay asleep and get into the deep sleep phase (the third phase) which is a 1-2 hour period where your body is working especially hard on repairing and rebuilding the muscle fibers torn during exercise, thus affecting any muscle-building goals you may have! Not only that, but you'll also wake up groggy the next morning which can affect your entire day! If you feel that your late-night eating habits are affecting your sleep, then consider changing up your nighttime routine to start getting better sleep!
However, we should mention that a healthy snack before bed can potentially help promote a good night's rest. Remember, everyone has different schedules. Some might be forced to eat late at night to avoid being hungry while sleeping - which can actually disrupt your sleep! So, if a late-night snack is what you need to help you unwind and prepare for a good night's sleep then go for it! Just make sure it's healthy, like a high-protein snack.
This is probably the one everyone with a weight loss or fitness goal wants the answer to... Does eating before bed cause weight gain?
Although many associates eating at night with weight gain, there is no convincing data and research to prove that it does in fact cause it! Studies show that there may be a connection, but the results are mixed. For example, one of the studies concluded that eating at night can help you feel satiated and help you eat fewer calories overall the next day.  Other more recent reviews, like the one published in Physiology & Behavior in 2018 concluded that past research on nighttime eating and weight gain is flawed and inconclusive. But findings from small studies suggest that it's the timing of eating that impacts weight and metabolic function. Regular nighttime eating can potentially contribute to metabolic dysfunction while daytime eating has no beneficial effects. 
Again, the studies are mixed... Can it contribute to weight gain? Possibly, but at the end of the day, the main culprit of weight gain has to do with eating an excess of calories throughout the entire day, not just at night. So, if eating a lot of snacks at night is a regular habit and you've noticed that the scale isn't moving then consider reducing your nighttime snacks or consider intermittent fasting in a way that you skip breakfast, and have your meals later in the afternoon/evening. That way you reduce your feeding window to help reduce your overall calorie intake, but at a time that works for you!
Should you give up your late-night snacks?
It's really up to you and if it's negatively impacting your digestion, sleep, and weight control!
Although many are opposed to a late heavy meal before bed, some may not have an option. Sometimes life is so busy that the only time you have to eat dinner and have time to relax is right before bed. Therefore making it eating late at night nearly impossible! Bottom line is, your eating schedule is individual to you, and not really worth stressing over! Instead, focus on tracking your macros to ensure that you're not over or undereating. And for those who can't avoid a late meal, or just have to have a snack or two at night, opt for healthier options that are nutrient-dense and try to eat foods that are high in tryptophan and melatonin. Most know that melatonin is the hormone that regulates sleep, tryptophan, on the other hand, is an amino acid that increases serotonin and melatonin levels in the body. And fortunately, it’s found in a lot of foods you probably already eat! So, instead of ice cream or chips, choose these healthier options that are high in tryptophan, protein, complex carbs, and other nutrients:
- Apples and peanut butter
- Nuts and seeds
- Avocado toast (specifically whole grain bread which is high in tryptophan)
- Cheese and crackers
- Oatmeal or yogurt topped with fruit
- Protein shake with low-fat milk (if possible, if not then dairy-free milk is ok)
In summary, chances are having a small snack or your last meal in the evening won't affect your sleep or weight. But if are having a problem with anything we mentioned above then avoid eating foods that are spicy, high in fat, or acidic at night and try to eat more nutrient-dense foods like the examples given! Hopefully, this helps you get better sleep at night, and continue crushing your fitness goals!