This post is for all of my clients who want permission to eat after dinner. Sometimes, showing them the research that it is okay and not detrimental, like diet culture may tell you is all that it takes.
Thanks to my intern, Hope, for summarizing the research for this post! Hope is studying to become a dietitian and personal trainer, and she recently passed her CISSN exam!
Today, she is breaking down eating before bed by distinguishing between what the research says, what diet culture tells you and how we could approach this knowledge with intuitive eating.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard the words, “Eating after 8 pm will make you gain weight.”
If you could see me through your screen, you’d see that I’m raising my hand alongside you.
Growing up, I had this idea that somehow my stomach was like Cinderella, except when the clock strikes midnight, all of the food inside of it turns into fat, not a pumpkin. If not that, I thought that food eaten after 8 pm somehow had 3x the calories that it did during the day. Either way, that’s nowhere near how our bodies work.
One of my favorite parts of this semester has been my sports nutrition class. The curriculum has increased my awareness of how much energy my body uses and therefore needs.
A good bit of the information makes sense, though, such as injury recovery requires extra protein and how you use supplements differs based on your goals.
But one of the coolest parts of the class was hearing from guest presenters.
One of our guest presenters, Dr. Michael Ormsbee, spoke to us about research he has conducted in his lab at Florida State University on nighttime feeding.
In more common terms, Dr. Ormsbee taught us about how eating before bed affects the body and what actually happens. He never once said that eating at night will cause weight gain—in fact, he highlighted multiple reasons why consuming a nighttime snack could be beneficial.
Is Eating Before Bed Bad?
Dr. Ormsbee has conducted multiple studies on nighttime feeding. Here are some of them:
- He studied female athletes to explore how eating at night affected their metabolism and performance.
- How nighttime feeding alongside exercise affected appetite and various health risks, mainly cardiometabolic, in young obese women.
While these studies were definitely different, these, and others, found some positive reasons to eat before bed that can also be applied to the general public.
I feel like the public doesn’t hear this message, but instead hears, “don’t eat before bed, you’ll gain weight!”
Under each of these topics, I’m going to break down what diet culture makes us think versus what research shows, plus an intuitive eating application. I hope your mind is as blown as mine was when I first heard all of this.
1. Eating Before Sleep Can Boost Your Metabolism
Diet Culture Says… that eating after 8 pm will make you gain weight. This diet culture myth stems from the sheer assumption that eating more calories will cause weight gain.
It assumes that, regardless of what you’ve eaten that day, omitting calories will get you to a lower weight.
This theory disregards all of the recovery, digestion, organ functions, and more that your body needs the energy to keep up with while you’re sleeping. Ultimately, it ties back to the restriction mindset that so much of diet culture does.
Research Shows… that eating before you go to bed can actually boost your metabolism in the morning. Regardless of whether the participants consumed carbohydrates or one of two types of protein, the results were all the same: a faster metabolism in the morning.
Now before this gets twisted into a diet culture-y context, let me explain metabolism scientifically. Your metabolism is the amount of energy your body needs to maintain homeostasis while fueling all of the activities you’re doing.
When you wake up with a faster metabolism, it means your body is functioning well while you’re asleep, and the food you ate before bed is helping to sustain all of those functions.
Apply This to Intuitive Eating by… eating a nighttime snack IF you’re feeling it. Now, don’t force yourself to eat if you’re still really full from dinner.
But if you’re hungry before bed, that’s your body telling you that it needs more energy to work well while you’re asleep. Listen to it!
2. A Night Time Snack Offers Another Opportunity to Consume Nutrients
Diet Culture Says… the only thing that matters is sheer calories. And the less calories you eat after dinner, the better.
Your body will still be fine if you’re not eating enough of a certain (or multiple) macronutrient or micronutrient.
If you’re feeling fatigued, sluggish, or any other side effects of a nutrient deficiency, just push through them. It’s almost time to sleep, anyway.
Research Shows… a bedtime snack is a great time to consume nutrients that you might be lacking.
The strongest evidence for this was shown in athletes who drank protein shakes before bed in order to build more lean muscle because it was difficult to eat enough protein throughout the day. I also know marathon runners typically struggle with this as well.
If they didn’t take this opportunity to have more protein before sleeping, their muscles would not rebuild as well or as efficiently, and/or other organs and systems in the body would be compromised.
Apply This to Intuitive Eating by… eating a snack before bed that has lots of the nutrient(s) you need. If you’re trying to build muscle, like the research participants, a protein shake might be the move for you.
If you’re a runner who needs to do a better job refueling, maybe choose some carbohydrates, like oatmeal or cereal.
If you’re unsure, trust your hunger cues, and let your body have what you’re craving. There might be a nutrient in that food that you need more of, or maybe it’s choosing something satisfying, like a bowl of ice cream.
3. At Worst, It Won’t Hurt
Diet Culture Says… eating at night will hurt you because it will make you gain weight. There couldn’t possibly be any positives to it.
Research Shows… when compared with those who opted out of a nighttime snack, a group who ate a nighttime snack didn’t gain any significant weight over the course of the study. The nighttime snacks provided were either a carbohydrate drink or one of two types of protein shakes, all with equal calories.
Apply This to Intuitive Eating by… refusing to stress over your nighttime snack. Like I said earlier, if you’re super full after dinner, don’t force yourself to eat again. But if you’re hungry, don’t worry about your body sabotaging you. Trust your hunger cues.
I hope this post was helpful, and if anything, shows you that there is “room” and balance for night time snacks, if you need or want them. Our bodies are smart, and if they crave night time snacks, there is usually a reason why.