There’s a rumor among dieters that eating before bed causes weight gain.
Even nutrition coaches’ opinions vary on this.
I’ll give you my take on what the research has to say. Then I’ll dive into the more important aspect, dealing with why you feel the need to eat at night in the first place.
The Great Debate
There are two sides to every argument.
For instance, Seth and I have a disagreement on the laundry. He thinks certain clothes that have been worn once belong on the floor against the wall. I say they belong either in the laundry or back in the closet.
The two sides there are very clear: His opinion, and the right way.
Fitness and nutrition have their own controversies. Strategizing when to eat your meals is one of them.
Some people think meal timing is crucial. They say things like, “You have to have a protein shake within 15 minutes after a workout!”
Others think meal timing is irrelevant. They say things like, “Eat whenever you want. It doesn’t matter.”
Admittedly, I’ve been in the latter camp in the past. I still lean more to that side than the other, but now I recognize there’s a bit more nuance involved.
The research isn’t fully conclusive, and I doubt it ever will be. There’s too much variance from person to person. However, I feel comfortable saying two things:
Eating a giant meal right before bed probably isn’t ideal. (But then, we don’t live in an ideal world.)
For most people, meal timing isn’t the thing to focus your efforts on when trying to lose weight. (Though it can be appropriate in certain contexts as an advanced strategy.)
In the meantime, let’s take a look at the real problem with eating late at night.
Are You Hungry?
If you get to the end of your day and hunger overtakes you, causing you to stuff your face… your current plan (or lack of one) needs to change.
There are 3 things you can adjust:
1. The Size of Your Meals
It could be that all your meals are too small. Or it could just be the last one you had wasn’t enough.
Slight hunger from trying to lose weight can be normal. Feeling starved is unnecessary, and means you haven’t eaten enough during the day.
2. The Frequency of Your Meals
I find I can eat a certain amount of food one day and be fine, then struggle with the same amount of food another day, feeling it isn’t enough. The only thing that changes is how far apart I space my meals.
There’s no magic formula. Just be intentional about how many times you eat each day, and how often.
3. The Content of Your Meals
If most of your meals are from eating out, or processed, pre-packaged foods, you could be getting plenty of calories and still be hungry.
These types of foods aren’t as filling, so you feel hungry much sooner after eating them than you would with whole foods.
All of these things are reasons you might be hungry late at night. And they’re all more important to consider than simply asking if it’s ok to eat before bed.
But there’s still more to think about.
Is It Something Else?
Are you really hungry when you eat at night? Or are you just bored? Or stressed? Or tired?
If it’s anything other than hunger that makes you pig out before you lie down, initiating a nighttime routine can help.
This routine can include things like:
An alarm an hour before sleep time (to get the ball rolling).
Brushing your teeth (to prevent snacking later).
Reading a book (to cure boredom and preserve sleep quality).
Prayer and/or meditation (to settle you and relieve stress).
Just having a routine can prevent you from getting overly tired and making poor eating decisions — and isn’t that one of the biggest problems with eating late anyway?
Heck, even if you ARE hungry at night, it could be because you stay up too long. Whereas if you went to bed an hour earlier, your hunger would wait until morning.
The specifics of the routine don’t matter. What’s important is getting out of the habit of eating when you don’t need to.
The timing of your meals should be dictated by what’s most helpful in reaching your goals. In other words, you need a strategy. I have 2 recommendations.
1. Don’t force yourself to eat if you aren’t hungry.
If you function better skipping breakfast, or having less frequent meals, that’s fine.
Just make sure it’s an intentional strategy and not something you do because you aren’t paying attention to your hunger cues. Otherwise you may end up binging in the evening.
(Sidenote: If you have a hard time gaining weight and want to put on some muscle, you’re the exception to this rule.)
2. Don’t force yourself to NOT eat if you get hungry.
There’s no reason to put off eating if you feel better having food more often.
Just make sure it’s an intentional strategy and you aren’t simply giving in to every little urge to have a bite when you would otherwise be fine waiting.
As long as you pay attention to how you eat, you can fine-tune when you eat as you learn more about your hunger cues and see what brings you closer to your goals.
You may find eating before bed isn’t necessary. Or it could end up being beneficial to you in some way. Either way, you’ll never know for sure until you start working on a plan designed specifically for you.
You can use the ideas I laid out here and get started today. If you aren’t ready to tackle it yourself, fortunately for you, that’s what we do! Apply for one-on-one nutrition coaching here.