Is Eating Before You Sleep Bad?

Health experts take a look at the arguments for and against.

Eating before bed is a tempting opportunity -- it's been a long day, we're unwinding and watching TV, and our fridge and pantry are full of tasty food.

First dinner, then dessert, and perhaps even another snack. Before we know it, it's bedtime and our stomachs are full.

Some argue that eating before bed can help you go to sleep, while others say it leads to weight gain. So, is eating before you sleep bad, or good?

"Firstly, it's important to define 'eating before bed' as between dinner and bedtime. Whether or not you should has become confusing and conflicting since the evidence supports both sides of the argument," dietitian Robbie Clark told HuffPost Australia.

Let's take a look at the various arguments, and what health experts think about each.

Argument: don't eat before bed because it slows down metabolism

There's a common belief that eating before bed causes weight gain because, when you sleep, your metabolism slows down, thus resulting in food being stored as fat.

"However, your nighttime basal metabolic rate averages the same as during the day, which means your body still requires energy while you sleep," Clark said.

Argument: calories 'count more' before bedtime

According to Clark, there is no evidence to support the idea that calories 'count more' when we consume them before bedtime, compared to other times of the day.

"However, even though there seems to be no physiological reason why, there are some studies that have linked eating before bed with weight gain."

Eating before bed is a complex, individualised topic.
Eating before bed is a complex, individualised topic.

Argument: it's better to go to bed full than hungry

According to nutritionist Fiona Tuck and accredited practising dietitian Chloe McLeod, it's better to go to bed feeling full than it is to feel starving.

"It's not good to go to bed hungry either as this can cause a drop in blood sugar, which can worsen insomnia or cause a restless sleep," Tuck told HuffPost Australia.

"Thanks to long workdays, sometimes people get home really late and might not have had dinner yet. If it's a choice between going to bed hungry, or having dinner and going to bed feeling more full, in most instances I'm going to be suggesting to eat," McLeod said.

"Yes, it's about managing time, but I certainly wouldn't be suggesting to not eat anything if you get home late and you're hungry."

If you haven't eaten yet but it's close to bedtime, opt for a light meal.
If you haven't eaten yet but it's close to bedtime, opt for a light meal.

Argument: eating before bed encourages bad eating habits

"The real underlying reason why eating before bed is a bad idea is that it may lead to unhealthy behaviours and habits, which in turn may lead to weight gain," Clark explained.

This is simply because a bedtime snack is often an extra meal on top of dinner and dessert, meaning we're consuming extra calories we may not necessarily need.

"It is more likely that a bedtime snack will either contain foods that are high in calories or be a large portion," Clark said.

Pair this eating habit with distracted eating (such as while watching TV) and we're setting ourselves up for weight gain.

Argument: nighttime is when your body should be resting

Another argument against eating before bed is that, while you sleep, your body and digestive system should be resting, not digesting food.

"I agree with that, so I wouldn't be suggesting to come home late and have a giant meal. Have something which is lighter and easier to digest," McLeod said.

"One of my favourite things to suggest is to have a vegetable omelette or a vegetable and bean soup. Essentially, eat something which is not a big, heavy meal with lots of meat.

"Yoghurt and milk does help with the production of melatonin, which is going to help you sleep, so you could make up a small, basic smoothie which digests pretty quickly."

Basically, eating before you go to sleep probably doesn't slow down your metabolism or count for more calories. But it's not a great idea because it can encourage unhealthy eating habits and lead to weight gain, simply because you're eating an extra meal.

Ideally, leave at least an hour -- and up to three hours -- between bed and food, so there is time for your body to digest.

"If you had an early dinner, maybe check whether you're hungry because you need the food, or if you're hungry because you're tired. If it's been a long day and you haven't eaten since the afternoon, then it is a good idea to have something light," McLeod said.

Foods to avoid before bed are those high in unhealthy fats and sugars.

"You should avoid dessert foods and junk foods such as ice cream, cakes, pastries or chips, as these foods are not only high in unhealthy fats but also added sugars, which can trigger cravings and overeating. They also make it very easy to exceed your daily calorie needs," Clark said.

Fruit and yoghurt is good light option.
Fruit and yoghurt is good light option.

To help prevent late night cravings, eat a balanced dinner to provide you with a steady source of energy as you fall asleep. And remember to stay hydrated throughout the day.

"Make sure you're including adequate amounts of protein, veggies, healthy fats and low GI carbs in your dinner so you're satisfied," McLeod said.

"Drink plenty of water throughout the day so that you're not just dehydrated. And check if you're actually hungry, or if it's just late and you're tired. If that is the case, you should just go to bed."

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