Is it okay to eat before bed?Nutrition
The myth of bedtime snacking
You’ve probably heard about the “dangers” of eating before bed. Some claim a nighttime meal or snack can spoil your diet. Supposedly, they say, you’ll store those calories as fat once you’re sound asleep - since your body won’t have a chance to “burn” them off.
But is eating before bed really that bad for you? The answer is simply no. And, in some cases, getting in nightly carbs or protein can work to your benefit.
This article will cover the basics of bedtime eating: when it helps, when it hurts, and why it won’t ruin your weight loss goals.
Why it’s okay to eat before bed
Naysayers of nighttime snacking have little scientific backing to their clams. In fact, research on weight loss finds that meal timing has no effect when calorie intake is controlled(1, 2, 3). Ultimately, the pervasive myths about bedtime eating are driven by a short-sighted, inaccurate view of human metabolism and fat gain.
Myth #1 - “You don’t burn calories while asleep.”
First off, your metabolism doesn’t just shut off during sleep. Although your activity-induced energy expenditure drops when asleep, your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is fairly similar across waking and sleeping states(4). And, in the end, your BMR constitutes the bulk of your total daily energy expenditure.
It’s important to acknowledge that sleep is not an inactive or passive state, but rather an active time of repair and recovery - both for the body and brain. Interestingly, some research has found that energy expenditure during sleep actually exceeds waking BMR in lean individuals(5). Moreover, exercise appears to enhance your sleeping metabolism further(6).
Myth #2 - “Acute fat storage = fat gain.”
When you eat, you’re bound to store some fatty acids in adipose (fat) tissue - regardless of what time you eat. However, this stored fat isn’t necessarily permanent, as it can be mobilized again as fuel for periods when you aren’t eating.
Throughout the day, you fluctuate between periods of feeding and fasting: during feeding periods you’re apt to store some fat, and during fasting periods you’ll likely burn it. The more calories you consume in a meal, the more fat you’ll acutely store - but if your overall calorie intake leaves you in an energy deficit or maintenance, you’ll end up burning that temporarily stored fat. That is, your net energy balance dictates whether acute fat storage outpaces acute fat burning.
For example, take two different eating schedules…
In scenario one, you eat one large meal per day. In scenario two, you eat eight smaller meals per day, which total the same calories and macro composition as scenario one.
You’ll acutely store more fat in the large meal compared to the small meal. However, since you have a longer period of fasting in scenario one, you end up burning much of that stored fat. While each small meal in scenario two acutely stores less fat, the shorter fasting period between meals yields less fat burn compared to the longer fasting in scenario one. At the end of the day, because calorie intake and macros are equated, both scenarios result in comparable fat gain, maintenance, or loss.
In other words, hitting your daily or weekly calorie targets matters much more than the specific timing of meals. So if a nighttime meal helps you hit your macros, go for it!
When eating before bed helps
In some respects, consuming some protein or carbohydrates at night may provide particular benefits depending on your goals: specifically, pre-bed protein can boost muscle building and sleep quality and nightly carbs may also support sleep.
Nightly protein for muscle gain & sleep
Many lifters have sworn by pre-bedtime casein protein to maximize muscle gain. And eventually this “bro science” has received support from real science(7, 8, 9, 10, 11).
Sleep can be considered a time of fasting, since your body goes for (optimally) 7-to-9 hours without food. Since muscle protein synthesis requires dietary amino acids, protein synthesis rates tend to drop when you’re asleep. Fortunately, consuming ~30 grams of protein before bed has been found to counteract this dip in protein synthesis, so your body can more effectively repair and build muscle at night.
In addition, eating protein sources high in tryptophan may enhance sleep(12). Tryptophan is an amino acid necessary for synthesizing serotonin and melatonin, both of which support quality sleep.
Some sources of high-tryptophan foods include…
- Pumpkin seeds
- Leafy green vegetables
Nightly carbs for sleep
Eating carbs at night has gotten a bogus bad rap. Some say bed-time carb intake impairs insulin sensitivity and fat loss - but these claims are total hogwash. Studies reporting lower insulin sensitivity to nighttime meals versus morning feedings are often confounded by the fact that morning meals occur after an overnight fast. In truth, insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance to mid-day and night-time meals are quite similar(13).
Moreover, having some nightly carbs may potentially enhance satiety(14, 15), lower stress levels(16, 17, 18), and support sleep(19, 20, 21). Particularly, having an easy-to-digest carb source at night can increase plasma concentrations of tryptophan and may complement the sleep-enhancing effect of consuming high-tryptophan protein.
Nonetheless, these benefits are minor compared to the importance of hitting your daily macronutrient targets - so focus on the weight loss majors before dialing in the minors.
When eating before bed hurts
While it’s completely fine (and sometimes helpful!) to eat at night, to ensure quality sleep, you’ll want to…
- Avoid eating too large a meal too close to bedtime - so try to wait at least an hour after eating before hitting the hay.
- Opt for easily digestible foods in your last meal (i.e. lower fat and simple carbs) to prevent any gut upset that may interfere with sleep.
- Ensure you’re eating mindfully and making food choices that match your macro targets.
When you’re tired at night, it’s tempting to mindlessly snack on calorie-dense processed foods - which is a surefire way to derail your diet. This is likely why some people find cutting out bed-time eating helpful for weight loss. But if you track your macros and choose foods that work for you, whether you eat them in the morning, afternoon, or night makes little difference.
The bottom line on eating before bed
There’s nothing inherently bad about eating before bed - especially if it helps you meet your macronutrient targets. The so-called “dangers” of nighttime eating are blatant lies: calories consumed at night aren’t destined to become fat, and your metabolism doesn’t simply shut off during sleep. In fact, if you’ve got your overall diet dialed in, you may find manipulating your nutrient timing can help you sleep better and maximize muscle gain. However, these minor tweaks in meal timing pale in comparison to the “big rocks” of weight loss and nutrition.
… So worry less about when you eat and more about what and how much you eat!
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- Zhang, K., Sun, M., Werner, P., Kovera, A. J., Albu, J., Pi-Sunyer, F. X., & Boozer, C. N. (2002). Sleeping metabolic rate in relation to body mass index and body composition. International journal of obesity and related metabolic disorders : journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 26(3), 376–383. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ijo.0801922
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