If you're like most people, you consume most of your calories after sunset. While nighttime munching can be enjoyable, and sometimes practical if a hectic schedule doesn't permit much meal time, eating at night can negatively impact your wellness. You don't need to stop late-night completely, but altering your routine to emphasize certain foods and habits can help safeguard you from related risks. For specified guidance, seek counsel from a registered dietitian.
It's possible that your body metabolizes food consumed when you should be sleeping less efficiently, increasing your risk of weight gain. Although research is lacking in humans, a study involving rats published in "Obesity" in October 2009 found that rats fed a high-fat diet when they should've been sleeping were more likely to gain weight from the same food compared to rats fed during normal wakeful hours.
The biggest factor in whether you experience ill effects of late night eating is your food choices, according to Dr. Mary Flynn, a research dietitian at The Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Snacks people tend to grab while sitting around at night are unhealthy. You're less likely to eat a bowl of steamed veggies at night, for example, than ice cream or potato chips. Low-nutrient snack foods are easy to overeat, which can lead to weight gain. Eating fatty or spicy foods at night can trigger symptoms that hinder sleep, such as abdominal discomfort and heartburn. Healthy, balanced bedtime snacks, on the other hand, can improve sleep by causing your brain to produce the calming chemical serotonin. Doing so can also keep hunger pangs from waking you mid-sleep.
Not only are nighttime food choices generally poor, but they tend to be eaten mindlessly, or quickly and with little awareness. Your mind can't, for example, focus on your hunger level or portion sizes while watching television or reading. The more often you partake in mindless eating, the more habitual and automatic it becomes, says Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, a psychologist and contributing writer for "Psychology Today." Mindless eating lends itself to overeating, weight gain, indigestion and, if you do so shortly before bed, disrupted sleep.
If you're hungry at night, Dr. Timothy Morgenthaler, a Mayo Clinic sleep specialist, recommends having a balanced snack, such as cereal with low-fat milk. For improved sleep, eat more healthy carbohydrate sources, such as whole grains, for boosted serotonin production. Pairing healthy carbs with lean protein-rich foods can enhance these effects, because poultry, dairy products and other protein sources provide tryptophan, an amino acid that helps your brain produce serotonin efficiently. Avoid high-fat foods, such as fatty meats and fried foods, before bed to prevent heartburn, indigestion and sleep trouble. To reduce overeating, swap out mindless eating habits, such as munching before the TV, with other activities, such as a warm bath, and serve yourself reasonable food portions rather than eating straight from packages. Eating healthy meals and snacks throughout the day can help minimize nighttime hunger.
- Obesity; Circadian Timing of Food Intake Contributes to Weight Gain
- New York Times; Late Night Eating Linked to Weight Gain
- RealSimple.com: Busting 10 Diet Myths
- National Sleep Foundation: Food That Could Help You Sleep
- Psychology Today; Forget Willpower! Stop Mindless Eating (and Other Bad Habits) Through Disruption
- Mayo Clinic: Foods That Help You Sleep
- BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images
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