We’ve all been there where our days have been so busy in work and in life that we suddenly stop and realise we haven’t eaten yet, or we’ve eaten so little all day that we get those night time hunger pangs. This can have a huge impact on our body and energy levels and have an effect on our performance in and out of the workplace. We’ve also probably heard that it’s not good to eat too late in the evening or close to bedtime but never really understood the reason for this.
Here nutritionist Laurann O’Reilly and owner of Nutrition by Laurann explains why we need to avoid the night time eating, the effects it has on our bodies and ways to curb those late night food cravings.
What The Research Says: A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism suggests that eating dinner later in the evening could cause weight gain, as well as increasing one’s risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Effects On The Body: If you’re a person who is prone to midnight munchies, then here are some of the ways it can impact our bodies and overall health.
- Heartburn & Acid Reflux: When you eat close to bedtime or even lying down on the couch, you may also experience problems like heartburn and acid reflux due to the position of your body. This is because when you lie horizontally with a full stomach you lose the effect of gravity that helps to keep the contents of the stomach down. Instead, you experience backflow which may result in problems such as indigestion, heartburn/acid reflux, gas, bloating, or abdominal pain.
- Impaired Digestion: Following on from the last point, as gravity is needed for food to travel through the digestive tracts, the lying down position doesn’t do us any favours. Not alone that but our bodies are meant to go into a state of starvation whilst we sleep, we should be repairing and not digesting. That’s why breakfast is called ‘break-fast’.
- Weight Gain: When we think about it, it makes sense to consume most of our calories (energy) during the day, when our bodies are more active and we’re able to burn most of the calories from meals to generate body energy. Many studies have shown that when we eat a significant portion of our total food intake in the evening, we are more likely to be overweight or obese. One reason for this is because many people simply don’t have the energy to cook up healthy nutritious meals late in the evening and instead may opt for high calorie convenience foods such as chocolate, crisps and biscuits which can lead to weight gain.
- Increased Inflammation: Much research has been done into sleep and the metabolism of food. One such paper has found how the timing of eating may influence biomarkers of inflammation. The study discovered when people eat more in the evening, they have higher markers of inflammation. For example, they found for each 10% increase in total calories consumed between 5 pm and midnight, there was a 3% increase in CRP (a major marker inflammation in the body). The same study discusses how a longer night-time fasting duration was associated with an 8% lower CRP (only among women who ate less than 30% of their total daily calories in the evening). These findings suggest that eating more frequently, reducing evening energy intake, and fasting for longer nightly intervals may lower inflammation, however more research may need to be done in this area.
- Blood Sugar Imbalances: Not only does eating sugar late at night overstimulate us but snacking or eating a late dinner can result in a post-meal glucose spike leading to high blood glucose levels, this is particularly important for individuals with type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. Researchers suggest avoiding high sugar foods in late the evening to help maintain blood sugar balance (with the exception of individuals with Type 1 Diabetes who may need to correct low blood sugar levels)
- Effects Cholesterol & Triglyceride Levels: A research paper in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that eating out of sync with our natural body clock (circadian rhythm) can impact the way the body metabolizes lipids. This can lead to increased levels of both triglycerides and cholesterol.
- Impact On Sleep: Sleep can also be negatively impacted by late-night consumption of sugary snacks, which will send blood sugar levels soaring. This reduces the quality of sleep, by reducing our deep sleep.
How To Avoid The Late-Night Eating
1) Identify the cause: To get to the bottom of nighttime eating it’s important to understand why we do it.
- Eating Very Little All Day: Many people restrict their food or don’t eating much during the day, either intentionally or due to time contraints, as a result they end up overeating their dinner, eating most of their food late in the evening or having food cravings during the night. Unfortunately, the body needs a minimum amount of energy just to function before we even carry out any activities, if we don’t meet this energy requirement during the day this can result food particularly sugar cravings later in the evening.
- Boredom or Habit: It may be worth asking yourself if you are actually hungry or if you’re reaching for food as something to do. We can also eat late out of habit, the biscuits with the tea or the chocolate with the tv programme. Remember you’re in control, whilst you may have got into the routine or habit of eating unhealthy snacks late in the evening or at night, it’s also possible to break the habit by replacing it with a healthier alternative.
- Emotional or Binge Eating: Very commonly many people turn to food as a source of comfort, even in cases where they’re not necessarily hungry. If you feel this is the case, please contact your GP who can assist and support you.
- Night Eating Syndrome: This is where individuals often to graze throughout the evening and wake up during the night to eat, consuming at least 25% of their daily calories at night. Again, if this applies to you, please contact your GP for support.
2) Create A Schedule: I’ve mentioned previously how much the body loves routine, from your sleep body clock (circadian rhythm), to exercise to your eating schedule.
- Meal Schedule: Creating a lunch and early dinner schedule can have huge benefits to your health as it not only encourages you to fit in your meals during the day, but it also ensures that your body is repairing and not digesting whilst you sleep. Note: Although the recent study and some previous research has highlighted the benefits of eating an earlier dinner, that doesn't mean you need to skip a meal if your schedule has you running into the evening.
- Having a Set Bedtime: We often confuse our hunger with tiredness, so those late-night cravings may just be your body telling you that it needs some rest.
3) Meal Planning: You’ve probably seen this one come up quite often, this is because planning your meals in advance of your busy week ahead is the key to healthy nutrition. This is particularly helpful if you have long and busy days in work as having your meals and snacks pre-prepared not only saves time but also prevents us reaching for high sugar and convenience options.
Download my free meal planner here: https://nutritionbylaurann.ie/your-meal-planning-guide/
4) Meet Your Energy Requirements Earlier: It’s important to consume our energy throughout our waking hours whilst we can utilise the energy for physical and mental tasks as well as biological processes. Make sure you are eating enough earlier in the day to prevent getting overly hungry at night. Eat breakfast within 1 to 2 hours of waking. Check in with your hunger every 3-4 hours for your meals and snacks.
5) Last Meal Timing: Do try to avoid large meals within a few hours of your bedtime and where possible eat dinner as early in the evening as your schedule allows. Ideally, it’s best Try to leave at least 2 hours between your last meal or snack and bedtime. If you often have nighttime heartburn or digestive issues, it’s best to stop eating 3-4 hours before lying down.
6) Light Snacking: Obviously it’s best to minimise your nighttime eating to avoid the negative effects of eating at night. If you feel hungry later in the evening and need a snack, choose a small, high protein snack like nuts instead of something carbohydrate heavy. Also keep in mind the size and contents of your nighttime snack or meal, particularly if you have digestive issues as bigger meals take longer to digest than light snacks
Suitable Light Snacks Could Include
7) Avoid ‘Passive’ Eating: Late night eating is also usually uncontrolled. Eating in front of a TV, phone or laptop can make you lose track of how much you’ve eaten as our senses are removed from the eating experience. Instead try to savour your food and avoid distractions whilst you’re eating.
- For Shift Workers: If you have to be awake at night, as with shift work, try to stick as close to regular mealtimes as possible. I will cover the topic of healthy eating for shift workers in a separate column so stay tuned for this one.
- Medical Conditions: For those with specific medical conditions, such as reduced appetite or if you have enhanced energy requirements, it’s important to fit in your meals and energy where possible.
- Athletes: For individuals who have heavy training regimens, sufficient energy is crucial to recovery so eating later in the evening may be necessary.
For information on corporate nutrition talks, healthy eating workshops and workplace wellness programmes contact me here
A farmer’s daughter from Tipperary, Laurann has always had an appreciation for food, nutrition and health promotion.
Laurann has an honours BSc. Degree in Human Nutrition from the University of Nottingham and a Masters in Public Health Nutrition from University College Dublin. She is also an Associate Nutritionist with the Nutrition Society London.
With a passion for nutrition and experience working in Ireland and the UK, Laurann uses her knowledge and skills to help people achieve optimum health and assists in the prevention and treatment of nutritional related problems through means of nutritional consultation, personalised diet plans, health promotion and education.
Laurann has an Honours BSc. Degree in Human Nutrition from the University of Nottingham, a Masters in Public Health Nutrition from University College Dublin, is an Associate Nutritionist with the Nutrition Society London, a professional member of the Celiac Society Ireland, is registered with the Institute of Public Health Ireland and fully insured.