Beware of Late-Night Eating

11/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Don't eat after 7 pm.

It's okay to eat late at night so long as you didn't pig out during the day.

Scratch that. It's not about timing, it's about calories.

No, it's about timing and calories.

Confused? I know, the messages tend to get mixed and
muddled. So let me set the record straight (for now) based on a recent
that will have you thinking twice about that late-night snack.

Northwestern University has just come out with a study that shows what a lot of people don't want to hear: eating when the body prefers to be sleeping (ahem, when it's dark outside and most of your neighbors are in bed) can have an impact on weight gain -- regardless of your calorie load for the day. Timing your meals, it turns out, plays a much bigger role in your weight equation than previously thought.

This doesn't surprise me in the least. We've known for quite
some time how influential the body's internal clock, or circadian rhythm, can be on its physiology. Recent studies have also confirmed that this clock regulates energy use, suggesting the timing of meals may matter in the balance between caloric intake and expenditure.

In other words, time a meal badly in relation to your body's clock, and you'll gain weight. Time it perfectly, and your body will use those incoming calories to burn for
energy rather than store them as fat.

Without even getting into the scientific details of how this
is so, it's easy to imagine how the body would prefer to not have to work so
hard when it wants to sleep. The moment you put something in your mouth when
the body is trying to slow down and get some rest, it's screaming back at you: What are ya doing? It's time for bed! I don't want to burn these calories now. Let's save them for tomorrow ... and put them on the shelf for now (as fat).

So, based on these findings, let me offer some advice short of writing the new diet book:

  • Set a time after which you try not to eat anything prior to bed. Ideally, this time should be at least an hour before hitting the pillow.
  • Choose bedtime snacks intelligently. If you eat dinner on the early side, and need a snack before bedtime, go for something that entails complex carbs and a little protein, such as a piece of toast with a small smearing of a nut butter on top.
  • Avoid fatty foods before bedtime. This is not the time to be chowing down on hot fudge sundaes, triple-cheese pizzas, and the classic burger and fries.

I've always said that getting good sleep is one of the
easiest (and cheapest) ways to lose weight. Now there's one more reason hit the hay on a empty stomach. 

Sweet Dreams.

Michael Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor™

This article on late-night snacking and weight gain is also available at Dr. Breus's official blog, The Insomnia Blog.