Is Eating Before Bed Actually Bad For You?

Snacking just prior to bedtime isn't that unusual for many of us. We've all had late-night Netflix sessions where we toss back handfuls of popcorn one minute, and the next, we awaken disoriented on our couch at 3:00 a.m. Or, we can recall a dismal travel experience where anything remotely resembling food wasn't available until the wee hours.

And some of us just tend to eat later in the day due to our needs, beliefs, or other factors. Even Taylor Swift isn't impervious to nighttime grazing, describing her experience with sleep eating as feeling "like a raccoon in a dumpster ... I don't really remember it, but I know it happens because it could only have been me ... or cats," during an appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

According to Psychiatry MMC, up to 5% of the population is known to suffer from sleep-related disordered eating similar to Swift's account. Some of us can also struggle with night eating syndrome, a condition characterized by the drive to eat 25% or more of your daily caloric intake towards the end of the day. 

We've all likely heard some form of the saying that eating close to bedtime isn't ideal for optimal health. Is there any truth behind this old admonishment, or can we continue eating our midnight snacks in peace? Hang on to your hors d'oeuvres; we'll uncover whether this piece of advice has merit or if it's safe to carry on nibbling at night.

What we know about the effects of late snacking

Clinicians began studying the impact of night eating in the 1950s when psychiatrist Dr. Albert Stunkard published a study in the American Journal of Medicine in which he explored patients' nocturnal eating habits. Today, we're still learning about the relationship between when we eat and how it affects our bodies. Unsurprisingly, most of the research regarding eating before bed explores how it influences our sleeping patterns.

Fitness experts might be dismayed to learn that recent studies propose that late-night calorie consumption isn't necessarily detrimental. "It appears that a bedtime supply of nutrients can promote positive physiological changes in healthy populations," researchers stated in a study published in Nutrients. They also noted that an evening snack is encouraged to promote good health for those with metabolic disorders, like type I diabetes. Furthermore, The Nature of Science and Sleep published findings suggesting nighttime food intake might not impair sleep in healthy people, noting that participants who ate a late dinner were largely unaffected.

Experts advise that you honor your body's hunger cues if you're having trouble sleeping. "That late evening snack, as long as it's healthy, could even be beneficial to helping you sleep better in those circumstances," dietitian Alexis Supan told the Cleveland Clinic. And there's good news for those of us whose cravings start at dusk: a study by The International Journal of Tryptophan Research indicates eating foods like peanut butter, which contain the amino acid tryptophan, might even help improve evening rest.

Should you change your evening eating habits?

Just because you snack or have meals in the evening doesn't mean there's cause for concern; plenty of people eat later than others due to their schedules or preferences. But if you notice pain, distress, or anxiety accompanying your way of eating, you may want to take a closer look and speak to your physician. "At night, in particular, you're tired, you've had cognitive demands to meet during the day, you're not wanting to regulate yourself as much, and if you have food cravings, there are fewer distractions to help you resist those cravings," Dr. Kelly Costello Allison emphasized to The New York Times.

One way to examine your body's tolerance for night noshing is to listen to your stomach. The American Journal for Gastroenterology found that symptoms like acid reflux and heartburn may be aggravated by eating close to bedtime, so try lighter fare or reduce your portion sizes before bed if you notice you're experiencing such issues. While medical professionals are still investigating the implications of eating at night, you can rest assured that you don't have much to worry about if you find yourself chowing down later in the day. As long as you don't feel discomfort or stress surrounding meal or snack times, you can continue to stick with your eating patterns.