Many people think it's a bad idea to eat before bed.
This often comes from the belief that eating before you go to sleep leads to weight gain. However, some claim that a bedtime snack can actually support a weight loss diet.
So what should you believe? The truth is, the answer isn't the same for everyone. It depends a lot on the individual.
Whether or not you should eat before bed — defined as between dinner and bedtime — has become a hot topic in nutrition.
Conventional wisdom says that eating before bed causes weight gain because your metabolism slows down when you fall asleep. This causes any undigested calories to be stored as fat.
Yet many health experts say that eating before bed is perfectly fine and may even improve sleep or weight loss.
Therefore, it's no surprise that many people are confused.
Part of the problem is that the evidence on the matter actually appears to support both sides.
Although many people believe that a slower metabolism during sleep leads to weight gain, your nighttime basal metabolic rate averages the same as during the day. Your body still needs plenty of energy while you sleep (, ).
There is also no evidence supporting the idea that calories count more before bedtime than they do at any other time of the day.
Yet despite the fact that there seems to be no physiological reason why, several studies have linked eating before bed with weight gain (, , ).
So what is going on here? The reason is probably not what you expect.
Bottom Line: Eating before bed is controversial. Even though there seems to be no physiological reason why eating before bed would cause weight gain, several studies have found evidence that it might.
The current evidence shows no physiological reason why eating before bed should cause weight gain. However, several studies show that people who eat before bed are more likely to gain weight (, , ).
The reason for this is much simpler than you might expect.
It turns out that people who eat before bed are more likely to gain weight simply because a bedtime snack is an extra meal and, therefore, extra calories.
Not only that, but evening is the time of day when many people tend to feel the hungriest. This makes it even more likely that a bedtime snack will end up pushing your calorie intake over your daily calorie needs (, ).
Add the fact that most people like to snack at night while watching TV or working on their laptops, and it's no surprise that these habits might lead to weight gain.
Some people also become extremely hungry before bed because they don't eat enough during the day.
This extreme hunger can cause a cycle of eating too much before bed, then being too full to eat much the next morning, and again becoming overly hungry before bed the next evening ().
This cycle, which can easily lead to overeating and weight gain, highlights the importance of making sure you eat enough during the daytime.
For most people, the problem with eating at night is not that your metabolism switches to storing calories as fat at night. Instead, weight gain is caused by the unhealthy habits that often accompany bedtime snacking.
Bottom Line: In most cases, eating before bed only causes weight gain because of habits such as eating while watching TV or eating too many extra calories before bed.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a common condition that affects as much as 20–48% of Western populations. It happens when stomach acid splashes back into your throat (, ).
Symptoms include heartburn, difficulty swallowing, a lump in the throat or worsening nighttime asthma (, ).
If you have any of these symptoms, you may want to avoid snacking before bed.
Eating before bed can make symptoms worse because having a full stomach when you lie down makes it much easier for stomach acid to splash back up into your throat ().
Therefore, if you have reflux, it's a good idea to avoid eating anything for at least 3 hours before lying down in bed (, ).
Additionally, you might want to avoid drinking or eating anything containing caffeine, alcohol, tea, chocolate or hot spices. All of these foods can aggravate symptoms.
Bottom Line: People who have reflux should not eat anything for at least 3 hours before bedtime. They may also want to avoid trigger foods, which can cause symptoms to worsen.
While eating before bed may not be the best idea for some people, it can be beneficial for others.
It May Curb Nighttime Eating and Aid Weight Loss
Some evidence suggests that, rather than causing weight gain, eating a bedtime snack may actually help some people lose weight.
If you're a person who tends to eat a big portion of your calories during the night (usually after going to bed), having a snack after dinner can help control your desire for nighttime snacking (, ).
In one 4-week study of adults who were night-snackers, participants who began eating one bowl of cereal and milk 90 minutes after dinner ate an average of 397 fewer calories per day ().
In the end, they lost an average of 1.85 pounds (0.84 kilograms) from this change alone ().
This study suggests that adding a small after-dinner snack may help night-snackers feel satisfied enough to eat less than they would otherwise. Over time, it may also have the possible benefit of weight loss.
It May Help You Sleep Better
Not much research has been done on this topic, but many people report that eating something before bed helps them sleep better or prevents them from waking up hungry during the night.
This makes sense, as a snack before bed may help you feel full and satisfied during the night (, , ).
Getting enough sleep is extremely important, and sleep deprivation itself has been linked to overeating and weight gain (, , ).
There is no evidence that a small, healthy snack before bed leads to weight gain.
Therefore, if you feel that eating something before bed helps you fall asleep or stay asleep, then you should feel good about doing so.
It May Stabilize Morning Blood Sugar
In the morning, your liver starts to produce extra glucose (blood sugar) to provide you with the energy you need to get up and start the day.
This process causes scarcely any change in blood sugar for people without diabetes. However, some people with diabetes can't produce enough insulin to remove the extra glucose from the blood.
For this reason, diabetics commonly wake up in the morning with high blood sugar, even if they haven't eaten anything since the night before. This is called the Dawn Phenomenon (, ).
Other people may experience nocturnal hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar during the night, which can disturb sleep ().
If you experience either of these phenomena, you might need to talk to your doctor about having your medication adjusted.
In addition, a few studies have suggested that a snack before bedtime may help prevent these changes in blood sugar by providing an extra source of energy to help get you through the night (, , ).
However, the research is mixed, so this can't be recommended for everyone.
If you experience high or low blood sugar in the morning, talk with your doctor or dietitian to see if a bedtime snack is a good idea for you.
Bottom Line: Having a bedtime snack may have some benefits such as causing you to eat less at night or sleep better. It might also help keep your blood sugar stable.
For most people, it's perfectly okay to have a snack before bed.
There is no recipe for the perfect bedtime snack, but there are some things you should keep in mind.
Avoid Desserts and Junk Foods
While eating before bed is not necessarily a bad thing, loading up on traditional dessert foods or junk foods such as ice cream, pie or chips isn't a good idea.
These foods, which are high in unhealthy fats and added sugars, trigger cravings and overeating. They make it very easy to exceed your daily calorie needs.
Eating before bed doesn't necessarily make you gain weight, but filling up on these calorie-dense foods before bed certainly can, and you should really avoid them.
If you have a sweet tooth, try some berries or a few squares of dark chocolate (unless the caffeine bothers you). Or, if salty snacks are what you prefer, have a handful of nuts instead.
Combine Carbs With Protein or Fat
No food is necessarily the "best" for snacking before bed. However, a pairing of complex carbs and protein, or a little fat, is probably a good way to go (, ).
Complex carbs such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables provide you with a steady source of energy as you fall asleep.
Pairing that with protein or a small amount of fat can help keep you full through the night and keep your blood sugar stable.
However, these combinations may have other benefits as well.
Some evidence suggests that eating a carb-rich meal with a high glycemic index before bed can help you fall asleep (, , ).
This is because carbs can improve the transport of the amino acid tryptophan, which can be converted into neurotransmitters that help regulate sleep ().
The same effect may be true for foods rich in tryptophan itself, such as dairy, fish, poultry or red meat (, , ).
Some evidence also indicates that a meal rich in fat can improve sleep quality ().
Some snack ideas include an apple with peanut butter, whole grain crackers and a slice of turkey, or cheese and grapes.
Bottom Line: Eating a snack before bed is fine for most people, but you should try to avoid junk food and desserts. A combination of carbs and protein or fat is a good rule to follow.
The answer to whether or not it's a bad idea to eat before bed really depends on you and your habits.
It's not a good idea to make a habit of snacking on unhealthy foods before bed. It's also unwise to eat a large portion of your calories during the night.
However, it's perfectly fine for most people to have a healthy snack before bed.