Out of all the questions I get asked, this one easily makes the top 5.
Is it bad to eat at night?
This question, based on the assumption that food eaten in the evening sabotages weight loss efforts has been posed for a long, long time.
Is it a myth? A truth? Ir maybe a little bit of both? Let’s take a look…
Many argue that food timing (what time of day you eat your food) makes no difference. So long as the total amount of food eaten in your day stays within your body’s caloric needs, there’s nothing to worry about. In other words, whether you eat your last meal at 5pm or at 8pm, food will only have fat-storing potential if it’s eaten beyond your daily needs for that day…the usual calorie game.
On the other hand, there is evidence trickling-in to suggest that food timing may matter, irrespective of calories and based on the idea that our metabolisms are better adapted to receiving food during the day than at night.
To be clear, a small nighttime snack is nothing to be concerned with and may in fact be a good strategy for you, and we’ll get to that soon. Problems seem to arise with chronic late night eating.
It turns out that chronic late night eating can throw off the body’s biological clock, disrupt metabolism and lead to problems over time. If we take the example night shift workers who chronically eat at night, we know that they experience greater difficulty managing blood sugar and insulin levels at nightime and have more difficulty managing their weight. This may also have to do with the fact that distrupted sleep patterns are an independent contributor to weight gain.
Now, I find research on metabolism and our body’s natural rhythm fascinating and think we’ll learn more about the importance of it in the coming years, but most practical advice I can give YOU, who works 9-5, regarding late-night eating is this
1) Try timing your last meal at least an hour or two before bed, to ensure proper digestion and uninterrupted sleep
but most importantly 2)…
Instead of asking yourself wether it’s good or bad of you to eat that nighttime snack… I want you to stop and ask yourself WHY you’re reaching for a nighttime snack.
Here’s the thing: since many people eat the majority of their calories (and excess calories) in the evening, it’s no surprise that a food rule like don’t eat after 7pm is so effective. By creating a deadline and not eating after say, 7pm, you’re systematically eliminating foods normally eaten in excess.
The issue isn’t the time at which you’re eating, but the overeating, which often happens in the later hours, distracted by conversation or a new netflix series.
This is why your best strategy isn’t to rule-in or rule-out eating in the evening…it’s getting into the habit of STOPING and assessing what’s going on.
Because let’s face it: life isn’t black or white. There will be nights when the snack you’re reaching for is motivated by stress and quite frankly, not the best option.
Then, there will be times that you had a hectic day, got home late and truly are hungry. In which case you should build yourself a nourishing snack.
So, what should you do? Here are some tips to guide you:
Night eating guidelines
Timing your last meal: Try timing your last meal or snack 1-2 hours before bed. This allows for sufficient time to digest your food and have a sound sleep.
Heading to the pantry or fridge? STOP and tune-in. Is this a habit or is it hunger? Are you being guided by thoughts in your mind (habit), or physical sensations in your stomach (hunger)? It’s common in the evening to feel residual stress from your workday, to feel anxious about all that needs to “get done” tomorrow or to find yourself opening the fridge on auto-pilot. If this is the case, then food is NOT the solution. Instead, you need to catch yourself, call yourself out and redirect yourself towards an activity that will ease the stress/calm the anxiety or redirect boredom you’re actually feeling. Breaking the habit of evening snacking can feel uncomfortable at first, but things that can help are making yourself a cup of tea when you’re stressed, brainstorming a list of priorities when you’re overwhelmed or heading out for a walk when you’re restless. Because if you aren’t hungry in the evening, then you do not want to create the pattern of eating in the evening. This can be a tough, tough habit to break.
Really hungry? EAT! Plain and simple. Make yourself a balanced snack that contains a mix of high-fibre carbs, some protein and healthy fats. Some of my favourites are chia pudding, yogurt with cinnamon and berries, an apple smeared with nut butter or this delicious almond butter & raspberry cracker I made a few nights ago that I’ve been swooning over. So delicious.
Always hungry at night? Assess! If you often find yourself with a big evening appetite then take a step back. Let’s make sure you’re eating sufficiently and in a balanced way throughout the day. Is there a good protein source at breakfast, lunch and dinner? Are you snacking mid-afternoon? You may find that with a couple tweaks, your nighttime appetite will disappear.
Got home late and haven’t had dinner? Maybe you take evening classes or, like me, work some evenings making it difficult for you to eat dinner at “dinner hour”. In this case, you either want to plan to break your dinner into 2-3 small snacks throughout the evening or opt for breakfast-for-dinner (everyone’s favourite!). Think yoats (that’s yogurt + oats), scrambled eggs or a well-balanced smoothie bowl.
Looking to gain lean body mass? Then you most certainly SHOULD be timing a snack before bed. Supplying your body with a source of carbs and protein in the evening is important as your body repairs and rebuilds your muscle tissue during the night. The combo of quark, berries and almonds is a current favourite among my muscle mass builders.
So there you have it. Some guidelines to help you navigate your evening appetite.
Rather than rely on another “food rule” to dictate your eating patterns, I challenge you to practice tuning-in. This is where the real change happens.
Do you find yourself eating at night? Is it habit or hunger and how can you tell? Share in the comments below!