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Snacking on junk food is almost never a good idea, right? That’s why government agencies such as Public Health England recommend natural snack foods, such as carrot sticks and almonds.
But new studies show that snacking late at night, even on healthy food, is bad both for your weight and for your overall health.
“Overeating at night is super common, but there are simple ways to help prevent it,” says Juliette Steen, an award-winning food and nutrition writer at the Huffington Post.
A team of Danish and American diet researchers agree: “Eating late in the day is common.”
As these researchers note in an article published the International Journal of Obesity, “Time of day [can] affect appetite and thereby body weight.” Indeed, time of day may be a particularly important influence on binge eaters, “who tend to binge in the evening,” they affirm.
They conclude, “Afternoon/evening may be a high-risk period for overeating, particularly when paired with stress exposure, and for those [susceptible to] binge eating.”
The good news is that when it comes to late-night snacking, according to Steen, “There are simple ways to help prevent it.”
But first, let’s examine some of the health problems associated with pre-bedtime eating.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school considered the negative health effects of late-night snacking in a study funded by America’s National Institutes of Health.
Non-overweight adults were told to eat three meals and two snacks between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. for eight weeks. They were then told to do the same but between noon and 11 p.m. for another eight weeks, with bedtime at 11 p.m.
The researchers found that with daytime eating, participants produced a hormone that helped them feel fuller for longer, and they tended not to gain weight.
When the study’s participants ate later, however, their weights increased.
Perhaps more importantly, the Pennsylvania study revealed that late-night eating led to elevated glucose and insulin levels, both of which are related Type 2 diabetes.
In addition, according to the scientists, late-night snacking and poor timing of meals in general impacts on cholesterol levels, potentially increasing the risk of heart disease or a heart attack.
According to Namni Goel, PhD, a lead researcher for this project, there are “benefits of eating earlier in the day.”
Goel continues, “Eating later can promote a negative profile of weight, energy, and hormone markers—such as higher glucose and insulin, which are implicated in diabetes, and cholesterol and triglycerides, which are linked with cardiovascular problems and other health conditions.”
Kelly Allison, PhD, a senior author on the study, agrees. “While lifestyle change is never easy,” she acknowledges, “these findings suggest that eating earlier in the day may be worth the effort to help prevent these detrimental chronic health effects.”
The Pennsylvania study confirms the results of earlier research showing that night-time snacking is a bad idea.
Here are some additional negative effects of late-evening snacks.
Eating soon before bedtime, particularly if you’re consuming heavy foods such as meat or a large meal, can contribute to acid reflux.
Gastroesophageal reflux is a term for the condition of acid moving up from your stomach. This may result in “heartburn”—a burning sensation in the upper abdomen or at the back of the throat. If this happens repeatedly, one is said to have gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD.
The stomach produces acid to help you digest your food. Sometimes, however, the acid may “reflux” or move into the oesophagus (the tube that connects your throat to your stomach). Because the oesophagus isn’t designed to handle the acid, the acid causes a burning sensation. Several things can trigger this reflux reaction, and one of these is late eating.
When you snack late at night, the food causes the stomach to excrete acid to digest the food. Upon reclining to sleep, stomach acid easily flows sideways into your oesophagus.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to avoid late-night eating, so that when you stretch out in bed, you won’t have a lot of acid in your stomach.
Eating late at night can stimulate your hunger on the following day.
This would seem to be counter-intuitive, but it’s true.
Your pancreas releases insulin after eating. The insulin in turn produces glucose, which triggers a hunger-related hormone in the gastrointestinal tract called ghrelin.
When you go without eating between, say, 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., the ghrelin function resets itself so you experience normal hunger levels in the morning. However, when you eat after 8 p.m. or so, the body becomes confused and produces more ghrelin, causing high hunger levels soon after you wake up.
This extra hunger can cause overeating and weight gain.
If you’ve got a test or job interview tomorrow, resist the temptation to snack before bed tonight!
Scientists at the University of California did a study with mice (which are nocturnal and eat at night) in which one group were fed at night, as usual and as the mice expected, and the other group were fed during the day.
The researchers then tested the rodents’ ability to recognise new objects. Those mice with disrupted eating patterns performed poorly compared to those who had been fed as usual and as they expected.
Worse, the scientists found damage to the ability to create long-term memories in the mice with the disrupted eating patterns.
The conclusion was that eating at unusual times, such as late at night, can potentially interfere with cognitive functions such as memory.
The great English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that the idea for his work “Kubla Khan” came to him in a dream. If you’re not a writer, however, you may find strange dreams disturbing.
One way to avoid them is to stop snacking late at night.
For years people have connected eating particular foods with weird dreams, and a pair of Canadian researchers set out to prove the truth of this belief.
The two asked 400 university students to complete a questionnaire about their diets, sleep, and dream experiences. Among the participants, eighteen per cent reported that food had the ability to “render their dreams more bizarre or disturbing.”
The participants affirmed that their dreams were affected either by eating certain foods (such as “greasy” items) or by eating late at night.
The good news is that if you’re a late-night snacker, you can change this habit. Here are some tips.
Anxiety and stress can cause you to eat when you’re not hungry, so try stress-busters such as meditation, yoga, or a hot bath in the evening.
Sometimes a few simple changes can help you break the late snacking habit. If you munch while sitting in your favourite chair and watching telly, try moving to a different chair or rearranging the furniture. If you snack while phoning your significant other before bed each night, try phoning from a different room.
Sometimes, snacking is simply due to skipping meals. Get into the routine of eating a complete and nutritious evening meal, instead of skipping or limiting dinner.
Besides helping to build, repair, and maintain muscle tissue, protein can help curb your appetite. A study found that eating frequent high-protein meals reduced night-time snack cravings by half! Be sure you get enough protein in your evening meal. Sources include meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans, broccoli, and nuts.
Not getting enough sleep has been linked to high-calorie intakes and poor diets. Make sure you get at least seven hours a night.
Snacking at any hour is sometimes caused by simple boredom. Find something to do in the evening—ideally, something that will keep your hands occupied so that you can’t reach for those fairy cakes. Reading, writing in a journal, and knitting are all good possibilities.