There are some misconceptions about eating late at night, including, most commonly, that it will definitely lead to weight gain.
This may be true in some cases. But any weight gain is likely down to the number of overall calories you consume, rather than the timing of the meal or snack.
In this article, we explore how nighttime eating can affect your body. Then, we discuss what the considerations are if you have diabetes.
How eating late at night affects your body
There are some incidences where a late-night snack or late-night dinner before your bedtime is necessary.
For example, if you find that you experience high blood sugar levels upon waking. This is what we call the dawn phenomenon. It is your body’s response to fasting whereby your body releases certain hormones, including cortisol and glucagon.
Along with the release of these hormones comes a release of glucose from your liver, into your bloodstream, providing you with the energy your body needs before you wake up for the day. This natural response to sleep happens in most people.
It is not a concern for those without diabetes due to their improved insulin sensitivity, but it can be problematic for some diabetics.
If you do not have diabetes, blood sugar rises after eating cause your pancreas to effectively produce and release insulin to help keep this blood sugar level steady, and prevent hyperglycemia.
Late-night eating may also affect your digestion. When we are asleep, our digestion naturally slows down as our metabolism also enters a resting state. This can lead to symptoms such as indigestion, and some people may experience heartburn.
If you suffer from acid reflux, this can be worsened by eating late at night. This is because there is typically only a small window of time between eating and lying down flat in your bed. When you have acid reflux, stomach acid flows up through the esophagus. This causes an unpleasant burning sensation.
Therefore, having a bedtime snack or meal could cause acid reflux or heartburn. This is because laying down with a full stomach can allow your stomach acid to easily travel back up into your esophagus.
Late-night snacking can also negatively impact your typical sleep-wake cycle, depending on the type of food you eat. Sugary foods and snacks can cause high blood sugar levels. This may affect your sleep-wake cycle and leave you feeling restless.
Does eating late at night cause weight gain?
There is logic to this common theory; if you are awake longer and eat late at night, you have less time before bed to expend the energy from the extra calories, thus leading to weight gain.
However, science does not stack up against this theory. A 2016 study explored children’s eating habits in the UK and they tested for an association between evening meal timing and risk of overweight or obesity.
The study adjusted for relevant confounding variables yet found no significant link between late-night eating and excess weight gain in children.
Although, in the 11 studies reviewed in this 2019 paper, intermittent fasting was not superior for weight loss compared to any other type of timing for meals or snacks. However, being sleep deprived has been linked to a higher risk of being a higher body weight.
If you choose to eat late at night or to enjoy a bedtime snack or nighttime meal, focus on healthy choices as part of an overall balanced diet. And avoid excess calorie intake if you are monitoring your weight. Foods rich in healthy fats and protein like small portions of nuts and seeds are nutritious choices.
Other good choices include protein-based snacks like Greek yogurt, cheese or peanut butter and wholegrain crackers, or a little unprocessed meat. Fruit and vegetables are often a good choice, too. Ensure you stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
As tempting as reaching for the ice cream and other processed foods may be, these are not ideal frequent choices. But, occasionally they are fine as part of a healthy diet!
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Is eating late at night OK for diabetics?
We have already discussed why eating a late-night snack or meal is necessary for some people with diabetes. For those concerned about their weight, it is more important to pay attention to the kinds of foods or snacks you eat.
If your preferences, eating habits, or work schedule mean you need to turn to nighttime eating sometimes, then try not to worry about it too much! As with any dietary regime when you have diabetes, ensure it works with your medication, particularly if you take insulin.
To avoid low blood sugar, you will need to ensure you have consumed enough carbohydrates to cover any long-acting insulin you take before bed. Speak to your specialist diabetes team to ensure you are on the right treatment to fit your typical dietary regime.
Why meal timing matters for diabetes management
You will be aware that the kind of food you eat is important when you have diabetes. But the timing of meals matters too. If you eat regular, balanced meals containing slow-release carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats, you are likely to experience the benefit of more stable blood sugar levels.
Yet, if you have an erratic eating habit or rely on one large meal and little else, your sugar levels are likely to see a spike following this. You can consume extra calories if you do not pay attention to your eating habits.
Erratic energy levels may also lead to increased and intense feelings of hunger and cravings which are challenging to manage.
As with all factors relating to diabetes management, eating late at night will affect everyone differently. For some, it may lead to them finding it difficult to manage their calorie intake (if they are tracking this).
Whereas others may find it fits in well with their overall eating pattern, and they don’t experience weight gain or weight loss. Focusing on nutritious and healthy food is a cornerstone of diabetes management.
This is no different if you choose to adjust your eating pattern and enjoy some nighttime snacking or eating your dinner late at night.
Aim to include fewer processed foods in your diet, more wholegrain carbohydrates, good protein sources, and plenty of fruit and vegetables, along with some healthy fats.