Firstly, it’s important to define “eating before bed” as between dinner and bedtime. Whether or not you should, has become confusing and conflicting since the evidence supports both sides of the argument.
There is the common belief that eating before you go to sleep leads to weight gain because your metabolism slows down when you fall asleep. This causes any undigested calories to be stored as fat. However, your night time basal metabolic rate averages the same as during the day, which means your body still requires plenty of energy while you sleep.
Also, there is currently no evidence to support the idea that calories count more before bedtime than they do at any other time of the day. However, even though there seems to be no physiological reason why, there are some studies that have linked eating before bed with weight gain.
Why is eating before bad/good?
The real underlying reason why eating before bed is a bad idea is that it may lead to unhealthy behaviours and habits, which in turn may lead to weight gain. It turns out that people who fall into the pattern of eating before bed are more likely to gain weight simply because their bedtime snack can be considered an extra meal and, therefore, extra calories.
In addition to this, the evening is the time of day when many people tend to feel the hungriest. Therefore, it is more likely that a bedtime snack will either contain foods that are high in calories or a be a large portion.
Not to mention that a lot of people like to snack at night while watching TV or working on their laptops, so it’s no surprise that these habits might lead to weight gain.
What’s the ideal time between finishing eating and sleeping?
On average, the stomach takes about two and a half to three hours to empty itself. Therefore, to optimise digestion and nutrient absorption, waiting at least this amount of time before laying down or sleeping is a good idea.
If you do eat closer to bed time, are there ‘better’ foods to eat?
If you find the need to snack before bed, the more appropriate foods to consume are those which are easily digested. Therefore, avoid foods that are high in unhealthy fats and opt for more liquid or semi-liquid foods and beverages such as yoghurt, protein shake or smoothie. You should also avoid dessert foods and junk foods such as ice cream, cakes, pastries or chips, as these foods are not only high in unhealthy fats but added sugars as well, which can trigger cravings and overeating. They also make it very easy to exceed your daily calorie needs. If you have a sweet tooth, try some berries or a couple of squares of dark chocolate instead. Or, if you are craving salt, snack on a handful of nuts.
Also, since our brain takes about 20 minutes to register a full stomach, a clever idea is to wait before deciding that you want a snack. You could also opt for herbal teas or water to act as a filler, which will trick your brain into thinking it’s full.
How can you make dinner more satisfying to reduce the need for extra food before bed?
Depending on what your food preferences are, a good way to help nourish and satisfy your body and hunger in the evening, is to make sure that you pair complex carbohydrates with lean protein and a little bit of healthy fat.
The reason for this is because complex carbs such as whole grains, legumes and vegetables provide you with a steady source of energy as you fall asleep. Pairing that with protein and a small amount of healthy fat can help keep you full through the night and keep your blood sugar levels stable, reducing your risk of cravings.