10 Ways Eating Late at Night Wrecks Your Health
From weight gain to cavities, eating at night can have impact how you look and feel. Here’s why you should curb your midnight snack cravings.
What time does your kitchen close?
In most homes, the answer is never—which is why it’s so easy to accidentally polish off a pint of ice cream or a box of cookies as the hours grow late. “Nighttime is probably the most popular time to snack, but it’s also the time we need to eat the least,” notes Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It. “Most people eat little to no breakfast, have lunch and a snack in the afternoon and then come home and have a big dinner.”
Why shutting down snacking is important
Of course, some of us need to eat well after sundown, whether because of a too-busy schedule that makes it a challenge to dine early or a need to keep blood sugar levels steady throughout the day and night. But science is increasingly discovering a number of negative effects that can happen when you start snacking in the midnight hours. Read on for what can happen when you eat too late at night—and follow these tips for smart ways to curb your end-of-the-day appetite.
You’ll store more fat
When researchers monitored 31 overweight and obese adults they found that, on average, those who ate later in the day had a higher body mass index and greater body fat than those who dined earlier in the day. The study, presented at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting, backs up years of animal research suggesting that late night eating boosts fat storage.
“This study involved a very small amount of subjects and was done over a small period of time, but the results are promising,” notes Cordialis Msora-Kasago, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics based in Menifee, California, who was not involved in the research. “It adds to the body of evidence that the timing of your meal can have an impact on your weight and hormones as well as your metabolism.” Here’s why else eating late can cause weight gain.
You’ll get heartburn
Anyone who’s had too spicy or too rich late-night meals has likely felt the discomfort of heartburn, that achy, burning feeling in your chest that can sometimes be accompanied by a bitter or acidic taste in your mouth. It can occur when stomach acid splashes back into the esophagus, causing acid indigestion or acid reflux. About one in five of people has a more serious condition known as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), a longer-lasting form of acid reflux that can lead to a variety of potentially dangerous health problems over time.
“Anyone with a history of acid reflux or GERD should avoid eating too close to bedtime,” notes Felicia Stoler, RDN, a nutritionist and exercise physiologist in New Jersey and author of Living Skinny in Fat Genes. Eating something that causes gas or eating too quickly can also trap air in your stomach and create discomfort, she adds.
Your blood pressure will go up
Eating late at night can increase blood pressure levels, especially among those who are already dealing with hypertension, according to a study presented at the European Society of Cardiology. Researchers tracked 700 people with high blood pressure and found that those who ate within two hours of bedtime had higher blood pressure levels overnight compared to those who didn’t eat anything before bed. The researchers noted that late-night eating raised blood pressure more than consuming a high-salt diet—typically, sodium is the biggest concern when it comes to hypertension. They speculate that when people eat late, the body stays on alert, producing more stress hormones like adrenaline, and that elevates blood pressure. Here are 31 more things you can do to control your blood pressure.
Your sleep will suffer
A good night’s sleep is vital to keep you happy, healthy and focused the next day. But eating too late at night will have you tossing and turning. “Sometimes the food that you eat can interfere with your sleep,” warns Taub-Dix. Foods that contain caffeine—a few scoops of coffee ice cream, say, or dark chocolate—can make you feel more alert; high-fat or high-sugar snacks can also energize you just when you want to be winding down.
You’ll get a double whammy if you also suffer from heartburn, suggests a survey of 1,000 people published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology: Of the people who had heartburn at least once a week, 63 percent of them said it negatively impacted their sleep and 40 percent reported that it wrecked their concentration the following day.
You’ll encourage emotional eating
Michelle Lee Photography/Shutterstock
Let’s face it: Most of us aren’t opting for carrot sticks or cottage cheese right before bed. “We tend to crave more sweets at night, especially if we have a rough day,” says Taub-Dix. “It’s like a hug from your plate.” Often eating late is done out of emotions or a habit, she adds. If you’ve always enjoyed dessert after dinner, you’re probably going to want to keep having that slice of cake or bowl of Ben & Jerry’s, and that will make for an unhealthy, high-calorie end to your day. If you need a little something to tide you over, adds Taub-Dix, look for a healthier option, like a small bowl of cold cereal with unsweetened almond milk. “It can be soothing without a lot of added sugar.” You’ll definitely want to avoid these foods nutritionists say they never eat at night.
You can double up on your calories
If you’ve tossed back a few drinks or rounded out a meal with some wine, the siren call of the fridge is much harder to refuse. “We tend to socialize more in the evening with alcohol. That means you’re not only taking in more calories through alcoholic drinks but also you tend to eat more and make worse choices, especially as the hours grow later,” says Stoler.
You’ll train yourself to mindlessly munch
When you’re streaming Netflix on the couch, it’s easy to work your way through a bag of chips or a sleeve of cookies without too much thought. If you need a snack while you watch your favorite series, make it a healthy choice (like some cut-up apple slices and nut butter or some Greek yogurt and fruit), and portion out what you want ahead of time, says Taub-Dix.
You’ll wreck your smile
A late-night snack after you’re finished minding your mouth can undermine all of your good efforts. And if you’re eating something sticky, whether that’s dried fruit or gummies, it can damage your teeth, since this type of food tends to stay on teeth longer, warns the American Dental Association. If you do have a handful of dried cranberries or raisins before bed, brush and floss carefully and rinse your mouth well with water.
You’ll break your internal clock
“All of us have an internal clock that dictates when we do certain things like sleep and wake up,” says Msora-Kasago. It’s called your circadian rhythm, and when you force your body to digest when its internal schedule indicates it’s time for resting, you’re disrupting your body’s natural processes, says Msora-Kasago. At night when it starts to grow dark, your body releases the hormone melatonin to encourage sleep. “Scientists speculate that when you eat after this melatonin is released, it can be confusing to your body, and may encourage weight gain.”
You’ll gain more weight
It’s pretty simple: When you shut the fridge and go to bed, the number of extra calories you eat totals zero. But when you start snacking, the sky can be the limit, says Stoler. “Weight gain or loss comes down to the total number of calories you consume in the day,” she notes. If you eat at night because you are keeping later hours, that may not be a problem, but if your eating window stays open longer, that’s when you can get into trouble. “Knowing that you are going to stop eating at a certain time can be a good way to simply tell your body it’s done for the day.” Check out 50 things your doctor wishes you knew about weight loss.