It happens to the best of us. Our little hunger demons come to life in the evening, telling us we absolutely need a bowl of pasta before bedtime. Or maybe your friend makes a dinner reservation (back when we did such things) for 9 p.m.
While eating late can feel greatly satisfying, there are negative effects, including possible digestion issues, nightmares or even long-term weight gain (our bodies store calories as fat when we sleep, rather than burning them as energy).
And now, during the pandemic, COVID-19 has thrown our routines even more out of whack. We’re at home more, not always sticking to regular mealtimes, and probably staying up too late. These habits might be causing us to eat too much too late, which can have health consequences.
Bethany Doerfler, a clinical research dietitian at Northwestern Medicine, is seeing all of this with her patients. She urges them to adopt a routine eating pattern and to stop eating after a set time each day.
“Even if you don’t have a structured day anymore or feel like your day is unpredictable, one of the most important things that you can do is schedule breakfast, lunch, a snack for yourself and dinner,” Doerfler said. Sticking to a schedule keeps you from eating impulsively and mindlessly.
There’s nothing wrong with having a late night snack from time to time, but nutritionists say that most days, it’s important to set a time to cut off your food intake for the day. Let’s dig into how to find the right time for your body.
What time should you stop eating for the day?
“The earlier, the better,” Doerfler said. “I really like my patients to be done eating for the night by 7 o’clock, maybe 7:30.”
But everyone’s lifestyle is different. Ideally, Doerfler said, you should finish your last meal early enough to allow for a 12 or 13-hour overnight fast.
Alexander Ford, a registered dietitian and osteopathic physician, said the best time to stop eating for the day depends on your bedtime, what you’ve eaten and how much.
“It’s not cookie-cutter,” Ford explained. “I would advise stopping your last meal around three to four hours before going to bed, so you can sleep through the night.” This is based on the fact that it takes about four hours for your stomach to empty after eating ― and larger, higher-fat meals may take a little longer.
However, an hour or two between your last meal and bedtime may suffice for some people, said Rahaf Al Bochi, registered dietitian nutritionist, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Olive Tree Nutrition. Listen to your body and take note of what time you’ve eaten if you experience any discomfort of trouble sleeping at night.
Mindless, unhealthy eating is more common at night
The biggest pitfall of eating too late is that you’re more likely to eat mindlessly, Doerfler said, especially while you’re out socializing, or even at home watching TV and scrolling through social media feeds. And the foods you’re most likely to crave at night tend to be unhealthy.
“People aren’t eating tofu salads after 9 p.m.,” Doerfler said. Most likely, it’s sugary, salty snack foods that are comforting and rewarding. That’s why it’s important to understand your body’s hunger and fullness cues, and to examine why you’re eating.
“Just self-reflect,” Ford said. “Am I really hungry? Am I bored? Am I sad? Am I happy? Some of these might be emotional triggers.” Emotions, stress and fatigue could drive you to eat, he explained.
Late night eating could cause digestion trouble
Going to bed soon after you eat could cause a slew of digestive issues, including indigestion and acid reflux.
Indigestion, or an upset stomach, sometimes happens when you eat too much or too quickly, or consume fatty or spicy foods, alcohol or caffeine. You may feel bloated, extra full or even nauseous.
Acid reflux occurs when some of the stomach’s acidic contents seep up into your esophagus. It might cause stinging in your throat or a sour taste in your mouth. Acid reflux can cause heartburn, too, which is a burning sensation in your chest. Al Bochi said lying down right after eating can make heartburn worse.
“Eating too late ― and especially large meals ― may also cause bloating, discomfort and nausea, which all affect your sleep quality,” she said.
Late eating could interfere with sleep
The stress and fear of the coronavirus may be interfering with your sleep, a phenomenon that has been called “COVID-somnia.” If you’re snacking when you can’t sleep, it could make the problem worse. A study published in the journal Obesity in 2011 found that taking in calories after 8 p.m. could not only increase the risk of obesity, but also shorten sleep duration.
Acid reflux and other stomach problems from eating too late could affect sleep, too, Ford said, especially if you have to get up to go to the bathroom frequently. Drinking alcohol or caffeinated drinks also could keep you awake.
Late night eating might even give you nightmares. Research on the subject is limited, but Doerfler said it’s possible.
“When people eat to the point that they feel full, that can disrupt sleep, and it may even disrupt your REM sleep, and that likely has something to do with influencing dreams,” she said. REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep is the stage when you’re most likely to dream.
Eating too late could affect metabolism and weight
Research shows that foods eaten later in the day aren’t as satisfying and increase overall food intake. If you often overindulge in the evenings, it could slow your metabolism and lead to weight gain.
A long-held belief in the nutrition world is that a calorie is a calorie, Doerfler said, but emerging research suggests the timing of those calories may play a role in how you metabolize them.
One study measuring the relationship between meal timing and weight loss found that late eaters lost less weight. Other research showed that eating a higher-calorie breakfast and lower-calorie dinner could help manage obesity and metabolism.
What to eat if you do want a late night snack
It’s OK to indulge your late night cravings sometimes. Ford said if you do, eat a light, portion-controlled snack. And eat real foods containing fiber and protein, not junk food, Al Bochi advised.
So, what’s the best late night snack? Here are some ideas, according to nutritionists:
Cheese and crackers
Greek yogurt and chia seeds
Popcorn without butter
Peanut butter and apples
“Try to limit processed, sugary foods, as these will spike up blood sugars,” Al Bochi said. “Also, try to avoid fatty, fried foods, spicy or acidic foods, or caffeine, which can all trigger heartburn versus a more neutral snack option.”
Whatever you choose to eat, be mindful about it, Doerfler emphasized. That starts with separating screen time from eating time.
“Mindful eating is also getting back to the pleasure component of your meals by taking part in the meal, whether it’s focusing on smell, taste, texture and appearance, but also pacing yourself to savor the way the food tastes when you’re enjoying it,” Doerfler said.