Let’s start with this: If you’re hungry, you should eat something. We’re firm believers that no one should feel bad about eating before bed. That said, there are certain foods that are better to eat before bed than others, as well as some you should avoid altogether. This means that what’s more important than whether or not you eat before bed is what you munch on when doing so, as well as the time at which you choose to consume it.
To illustrate the importance of knowing what and when to eat before bed, we chatted with NYC-based clinical dietitian and co-founder of Chelsea Nutrition Jennifer Maeng, as well as sleep expert and Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine president W. Christopher Winter. Keep scrolling to read through their thoughts to self-inform your before-bed eating habits once and for all.
Is Eating Before Bed Bad for You?
In short: It can be. But, as we said before, if you have hunger pangs, you should act on them. After all, trying to sleep with a gnawing stomach can be anything but productive. And while we acknowledge that there should be no hard and fast rule restricting a snack before bed, there’s proof that eating directly before bed can be bad for your health if done regularly.
Meet the Expert
- Jennifer Maeng is a New York City-based clinical dietitian and co-founder of Chelsea Nutrition, a health and wellness private practice focusing on both adult and pediatric nutrition in Manhattan.
- W. Christopher Winter is a sleep expert and the president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine. He is also the author of The Sleep Solution.
According to a December 2018 study published in BMC Public Health, researchers found that eating at night is a risk factor for metabolic syndrome and obesity. In studying whether eating dinner immediately before bed, snacks after dinner, or combinations of both, they found that all three scenarios can lead to adverse effects in women, namely severe weight gain, large waist circumferences, increased cholesterol levels, impaired blood pressure, and impaired blood glucose.
"In women, there was an association between eating habits at night and metabolic syndrome, but in men, it was unrelated," they wrote. “These findings suggest the need for intervention and awareness among individuals with night eating habits to mitigate further complications."
That said: Calories are calories—whether you eat them during the day or at night. The trick is to monitor your caloric intake, as the only way weight gain will happen is if your intake outweighs what you burn off.
In addition to weight gain and all the components of metabolic syndrome, Winter says that eating right before bed can cause acid reflux, indigestion, and circadian disruption, all of which can lead to less than favorable outcomes, ranging from discomfort to fatigue.
Intermittent Fasting and Eating Before Bed
If you’re a follower of intermittent fasting, you might think that you’re exempt from the rules of not eating before bed. If that’s the case, Maeng suggests re-evaluating your diet.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is a daily cycle of eating that typically allows for an 8-hour window of eating and a 16-hour fast. The claim is that doing so will help improve your metabolism and regulate insulin levels, as well as decrease toxins within the body.
“Circadian disruption, such as fasting in the morning and eating a large meal at night can increase the incidence and severity of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes,” she explains, noting that intermittent fasting often leads to eating large meals at night. "There aren’t enough studies on the health benefits of intermittent fasting for women. More studies are showing how it impacts hormones negatively and even messes up their cycle." Speak with a physician about whether or not this method of eating is right for you, and should you consider following it, plan your 8-hour window to start earlier in the day (say, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.).
How Many Hours Before Bed Should You Stop Eating?
Maeng and Winter agree that the ideal time for your last snack or meal is between three and five hours before bed—whichever is more manageable for you. "Of course, five hours might be tough for some people, depending on their job and lifestyle, but I say give it at least three hours," Maeng says.
What Are the Best Foods to Eat If You're Hungry at Night?
As much as you might be craving a sweet treat or a bag of salty chips, Maeng says you should instead satiate your hunger with a protein-rich snack or small meal—or load up your dinner plate with such to avoid craving a late-night morsel in the first place.
"Protein reduces ghrelin (AKA the hunger hormone) levels best," she explains. “I usually recommend my weight-loss clients to include a controlled portion size of high-quality lean protein to their meals for this reason. High-quality lean protein, paired with high fiber carbohydrates such as non-starchy vegetables (tomatoes, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, eggplants, etc.) helps to really boost satiety hormones and prevent insulin fluctuation."
And it looks like Maeng is on to something. According to an April 2015 article published in the Open Access Journal of Nutrients, data from recent years shows that men who consumed 150-calorie protein shakes at night showed improved overnight muscle protein synthesis, morning metabolism, and overall satiety. While the impact in healthy women has not been studied yet, it’s a start to inspire healthy eating habits. Plus, protein shakes check off two boxes (so long as you find a quality one, that is): dessert-like flavor and a nutritious yield.
If protein shakes don’t sound like your cup of tea before bed, experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology point out that, as a general rule of thumb, meal foods are better than snack foods when it comes to late-night eating. "We tend to make the worst choices when we are over-tired and overly hungry," they explain. "Many of these ‘convenience’ snacks are high in fat and sugar and low in nutrition; munching on them all night can often contribute to feeling bad physically and emotionally."
To avoid those less-than-stellar results, they suggest snacking on whole-grain cereal with fat-free or 1-percent milk, low-fat yogurt sprinkled with high-fiber cereal, string cheese and a piece of fresh fruit, a small can of tuna with whole-grain crackers, and so on.
Which Foods Should You Avoid Before Bed?
We’re not a fan of this either, but Winter says that it’s best to steer clear of caffeine, spicy foods, and highly acidic foods to avoid reflux, as well as ultra-heavy protein which can be too filling before bed. According to Maeng, you should also avoid high-carbohydrate foods, as they can negatively impact your blood sugar and insulin levels by making it fluctuate significantly, leaving you reaching for snacks in your pantry after your meal.
The Final Takeaway
Now that you know the risks of late-night snacks and meals, you might be hesitant to nibble even if your stomach is rumbling. But that's not the right move. All things considered, it's hard to sleep when you are hungry, so eat if you must, just eat smart," Winter exclaims.
Yoshida J, Eguchi E, Nagaoka K, Ito T, Ogino K. Association of night eating habits with metabolic syndrome and its components: a longitudinal study. BMC Public Health. 2018;18(1):1366. doi:10.1186/s12889-018-6262-3
Kinsey AW, Ormsbee MJ. The health impact of nighttime eating: old and new perspectives. Nutrients. 2015;7(4):2648-2662. doi:10.3390/nu7042648
Community Wellness at MIT Medical. Late-night eating.