One of the most pervasive myths in the health and fitness is that anything you eat before bed will make you fat. Or, put differently, if you want to lose fat, you shouldn’t eat before bed. Is eating before bed bad for your waistline?
Admittedly, there’s some evidence from studies suggesting that eating more calories later in the day (like those you eat before bed) is associated with weight gain and reduced cardiometabolic health. However, well-controlled clinical trials suggest that what and how much you eat is more important for weight management than when. However, if when you eat influences what and how much you eat, then obviously, it does matter.
In other words, eating late at night, such as before bed, won’t inherently make you fat…unless it leads you to make poor food choices and/or overeat.
Here is the problem: most snacks that most people mindlessly eat in the evening are high-calorie, highly palatable processed foods, which typically combine the “three pillars of processed foods”: Added sugar, salt, and fat. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist for the New York Times Michael Moss, these foods (like ice cream, chips, and chocolate) are “so perfectly engineered to compel overconsumption” that they “override our dietary self-control.” Surely, when these are the types of foods you find yourself snacking on, they will do nothing but harm for your health and waistline.
But, a small, healthy, structured nighttime snack may be highly beneficial for weight management, appetite control, increasing muscle mass, improving recovery from exercise, and increasing strength.
When you snack on reasonable portions of the following foods, they are not harmful; in fact, along with an overall healthy nutrition plan, they may be highly beneficial for cardiometabolic health, weight management, and athletic performance, particularly when combined with an exercise program.
The Best Foods to Eat Before Bed
In general, eating protein-rich foods and a higher protein diet help improve appetite control, reduce hunger, increase calorie expenditure, decrease body fat, increase calorie-burning muscle, and more. Along those lines, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that protein-rich foods are atop the list of best foods to eat before bed.
Researchers have shown that consumption of 40 grams of casein protein (a “slow-digesting” protein) 30 minutes before sleep is effectively digested and absorbed and helps improve recovery from exercise.
While slow-digesting protein like casein is thought to be best to eat before bed for muscle recovery, a recent study showed that consuming either 30 grams of casein and whey (a “fast-digesting” protein) 30 minutes before bed resulted in a significant increase in metabolic rate (i.e., calories burned) the following day.
What’s more, recent research conducted at Florida State University shows that consumption of 30 grams of casein or whey protein before sleep has beneficial effects on appetite the next morning. And when exercise is added to the equation for 4 weeks, protein consumption before sleep results in noticeable increases in next morning metabolism.
Taken together, a small, protein-dense (about 30 – 40 grams of protein and < 200 calories) nighttime snack may be an effective strategy for improving appetite control, metabolism, body composition, and performance. In addition to milk-based protein supplements (e.g., whey, casein), high-protein organic dairy foods from pasture-raised cows, such as Greek yogurt and cottage cheese, are good options. If you don’t tolerate dairy well or prefer not to consume it, then organic, pasture-raised animal proteins (e.g., meat, fish, eggs) are also quality options.
Cherries, Pineapples, Oranges, Kiwifruit and Bananas
Carbs? You must be kidding, right? No, I haven’t fallen off my rocker.
While these foods won’t necessarily have the same benefits as protein, they may offer some unique nighttime support. On one hand, for those of you who crave something sweet to eat before bed, these fruits can be a substantial improvement upon your typical late-night snack options.
In addition, each of these fruits contain melatonin, which is a hormone produced by the pineal gland that acts as a sleep facilitator. Melatonin plays a key role in regulating circadian rhythms, and ideally, melatonin levels are highest at nighttime when they help induce sleep.
In addition, several of these fruits (e.g., cherries, bananas) contain tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin and is also converted to melatonin. Tryptophan has been shown to have direct effects on sleep, producing increased sleepiness, decreased wakefulness, and improved quality of sleep.
Not surprisingly, studies have shown that consumption of kiwifruit and cherries can improve sleep duration and quality. Kiwifruit also contains prebiotic fiber, while bananas (particularly green, unripe bananas) provide resistant starch. These two unique forms of carbohydrate serve as fodder for the beneficial bacteria of the digestive tract. The fermentation of these fibers leads to the production of short-chain fatty acids, which fuel the immune system and stimulate the production of hormones that induce satiety (feelings of fullness and satisfaction).
Speaking of carbs, if you’re scared to eat them at night, don’t be (well, “smart carbs” like these at least). Recent research shows that consuming some carbs in the evening can promote weight loss, enhance adherence to a weight-loss diet, and improve appetite management. What’s more, carbs can have an antagonistic effect on the stress hormone cortisol, which can disrupt sleep when elevated in the evening.
Walnuts and Other Nuts
Speaking of stress, nuts have a unique stress-easing property: Their crunchiness. Interestingly, chewing is an effective behavior for coping with stress. Researchers believe that chewing causes changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which is responsible for initiating the hormonal response to stress. Under stressful circumstances, mastication attenuates stress-induced increases in stress hormones (e.g., cortisol, catecholamines).
In addition to helping ease stress, nuts’ crunchiness provides satiety value. That is, the mechanical aspect of chewing crunchy nuts generates a satiety signal. Healthy fats, like those from nuts, help regulate appetite by stimulating the release of key satiety hormones. The satiating power of fats is often one explanation offered to describe why some weight-loss trials have shown that high-fat, low-carb diets tend to lead to greater weight loss than low-fat diets.
Even though nuts are commonly regarded as high-fat, calorie-dense foods, what many don’t recognize is that the body does not efficiently absorb all the fat and energy provided by them. Several studies have looked at this phenomenon, and all showed substantial increases in the body’s excretion of fat (and calories). For instance, one trial showed that 17.8% and 7% of the fat from whole peanuts and peanut butter, respectively, was excreted.
Overall, research shows that nut consumption is consistently associated with lower body weight. When total calorie intake is not controlled, studies that add nuts to the normal diets of free-living folks have shown that nut consumption does not lead to weight gain. Even more, several studies assessing the role of nut consumption in weight-maintenance programs have resulted in a decrease in body weight.
Oh, and one more thing…researchers from The University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas, found that melatonin is present in walnuts, and they showed that consumption of walnuts increases blood levels of melatonin (a real plus for a food to eat before bed).
Don’t Go to Bed Hungry
At the end of the day, it’s important to find what works best for you. If enjoying a small (150 – 200 calories) snack comprised of healthy foods like the ones listed above helps you make better food choices in appropriate amounts the rest of the day, then stick with it. On the other hand, if you find that you tend to overeat junk food in the evening, then maybe it’s best to nix the snacking, evaluate your overall nutrition plan (and priorities), and take some time to do a kitchen makeover (you can’t eat it if it isn’t there).
The take-home point is that NOT everything you eat before bed will necessarily make you fat—unless it leads you to make poor food choices and overeat. In fact, emerging evidence suggests that small, healthy nighttime snacks can be beneficial for metabolism, health, and body composition.
Conversely, eating large meals or the majority of daily nutrients late in the evening may increase susceptibility to weight gain and cardiometabolic issues. And while it’s beyond the scope of this article, this practice may also contribute to disrupted circadian rhythms.