Once you become an adult it suddenly becomes really, really difficult to eat meals at socially acceptable times.
Perhaps it’s a rebellion against the 20-something years of regimented meal times (breakfast before school, lunch at noon, dinner after homework) but out of nowhere, we accept that it’s totally normal to eat breakfast at 11 a.m., lunch at 11:45 a.m., and dinner at 10:30 p.m.
In all seriousness, if you’re balancing a full-time 9-to-6 job and usually work out at night, you’re probably not getting home until well after 8 p.m. And by the time you’ve showered, decompressed from your day, and started cooking dinner (or ordered in!), it’s almost time to go to bed.
But is that a bad thing? Anecdotally, it’s thought that eating close to bedtime slows the metabolism, increases indigestion, and even that it can cause the eater nightmares. But sometimes it’s not feasible to eat dinner at 6 p.m.—and if your only options are to eat late at night or not eat, is it better just to skip the last meal of the day? Keep scrolling for the real answer!
First, the disappointing news: Eating later in the day is tied to weight gain and higher BMI levels overall. According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, participants who ate between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. gained more weight than those who did not eat or snack in the evening. But researchers aren’t convinced that this has anything to do with metabolic rate—it’s more likely that people gain weight because we tend to reach for junk and snack foods late at night.
If you forego a balanced meal of protein and greens for a feast of chips, ice cream, bread, and gummies, you’re probably going to gain weight. Processed, high-sugar foods cause the body’s blood sugar levels to skyrocket and eventually store sugar as body fat, and over time can cause metabolic disorder or even diabetes.
If you eat the right thing late at night, you might actually end up losing weight! A recent review found that when participants drank a 150-calorie protein shake 30 minutes before bed, they increased their muscle mass and strength over three months. Plus, participants noted they were less hungry in the morning and felt like they could recover more quickly from their workouts—and scientists noticed the subjects’ resting metabolic rate (amount of calories you burn while sedentary) also increased.
Before you decide whether eating late is right for your body, it’s important to note that snacking before bed does throw off the body’s natural rhythms. If you have a hard time getting to sleep, or consistently feel like you’re not getting enough rest even when you get eight hours of sleep, avoid eating late at night.
Snacking (or even eating a full meal) will mess with your body’s circadian rhythms. Digestion requires certain hormones like insulin, which are tied to our body’s circadian rhythms. When insulin levels increase, your body is getting the signal that it’s not the time to go to bed yet. Instead, your system will want to stay up to digest your food and perhaps burn through some of those calories. That, in turn, can make it more difficult to fall asleep when you do go to bed, or get into deep sleep and complete a full REM cycle.
Eating late at night, especially if it’s your only option, isn’t the worst thing in the world. Be sure to get enough protein and greens and to limit your carbohydrate intake (and avoid the ice cream!) and you should be good!