3 October 2017Do You Eat Too Much at Night?

Do you think you eat too much at night? I'm not referring to the after dinner snack that you have carefully portion controlled and fit into your daily calories budget. I am talking about the habit of eating your largest meal close to bedtime and/or eating more than a third of your calories intake during the late evening/middle of the night hours. The late night grazers would be in this group. Many of you who eat like this wake up after an unrestful night of sleep, skip breakfast, and then start the cycle all over again.

If that describes you and you struggle with controlling your weight, blood glucose, or other health issue, then maybe it is time to rethink your meal timing. Intentional shifting of your meals/snacks so that most of your food is consumed earlier in the day could help you control a number of health issues at the same time.

1. GERD or Reflux. How many times has your healthcare provider recommended that you avoid eating too close to bedtime? Eating a lighter dinner meal (especially lower in total fat and volume) and eating more than 3 hours before bedtime will help avoid the unpleasant reflux that can occur when people lie down too soon after eating. If you would like more information about this condition, read Is Your Heartburn Getting Worse?

2. Blood Glucose (BG). For those of you with diabetes, check your BG before and after those late night eating occasions to see just how high your BG goes and stays. You are more insulin resistant in the late evening than during the daytime. A carb load that you might handle just fine at lunch could throw you over the top at 12 AM (midnight). So, unless your work schedule forces you to work in the middle of the night, try to avoid eating dinner late at night or grazing in the middle of the night. This is also good advice for people with prediabetes.

3. Weight. If you are constantly eating more than a third of your calories budget late at night, my guess is that you are not eating enough calories and macronutrients earlier in the day. Granted, if you meet your calories budget, you will achieve your weight goal. But weight loss might be harder than it needs to be. Also, there is research that shows a higher likelihood of obesity and weight gain with later-shifted eating patterns. From my clinical experience, I can confirm that my patients and clients with the most challenging weight and diabetes control were those that were very late-night shifted in their eating, often in combination with very poor sleep quality and duration.

Eating the majority of your meals/snacks during the day and finishing earlier in the evening helps you stay in sync with your body's natural circadian rhythm. That is, most of us are "metabolically geared up" for daytime eating and don't do as well in terms of weight and health when we shift too far into the night.

If you are a chronic late night eater, then focus on gradually shifting your intake earlier in the day. You might be surprised to find that when you do this, you will wake up with a better appetite for breakfast. This doesn't mean you can't eat after dinner or that you cannot eat past a certain time. But try to consume the majority of your calories and macros (fat, carbs, and protein) earlier in the day.

Tips for eating less late at night:

  • Track time of food intake in addition to what you ate or drank. Try to consume the majority of your calories before dinner.
  • Experiment with eating all of your meals/snacks within a 12 hour period.
  • Eat a generous breakfast. If you want to read more about the importance of breakfast, then read these posts at MyNetDiary Blog.
  • Consume fat, carbs, and protein at all meals. Don't wait until dinner to get enough protein.
  • Don't go too long between lunch and dinner - add an afternoon snack if the gap is more than 5 hours.
  • If you have an extreme craving for carbs late at night, your daily carb intake might be too low and/or your intake of fat and protein might be too low.
  • If you are excessively hungry after dinner and you have met your calories budget, then consider lowering your rate of weight loss.
  • If you always need a snack before bedtime to sleep well, budget for the snack and try to limit to 100 kcal or less. Examples: 1 cup of fresh berries or 1 small piece of fruit, 1/3 cup cottage cheese, 1/2 oz of nuts, reduced fat cheese stick, or 20g regular cheese.
  • This might be the most important tip of all - address and manage poor sleep. If you can improve the quality and/or duration of your sleep, you might find that your eating habits improve dramatically. Here are some posts on sleep at MyNetDiary blog.

If you are a swing shift or night shift worker, then stay tuned for a future post devoted to that topic. You do need to eat during your 8-12 hour shift to stay alert and nourished, but you can still experiment with eating the majority of your intake during the normal waking hours.

Good luck with your meal timing experiments!

Katherine Isacks, MPS, RD, CDE
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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.


Diabetes/Health Meal Planning & Diets/Healthy Eating

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