All of us are guilty of late night refrigerator raids once in a while. Sometimes a stressful day, depression, illness, working late, inability to sleep, or just plain boredom will draw us to the kitchen when we should be sleeping. Many of us eat the equivalent of a full meal in these late night scenarios, often eating more than we do in daytime meals.
Both men and women, with studies citing over 40% of men, and close to 60% of women, engage in night eating. So, it seems to have become a common practice amongst a lot of people. However, I’d like to explain to you why I feel all that late night eating is a bad habit best left alone. In fact, it can sabotage not only your sleep, but your weight control efforts, as well as negatively impact other significant health issues.
Now, for those of you who work graveyard shifts and are actively engaged in work all night, this doesn’t really apply to you. The food these people eat during late night hours will likely be used for energy and not pose the same problems. So, I’m aiming this at those of you who keep relatively normal 9 to 5 hours, and find yourself consuming a moderate to large amount of food during the time period you normally would be sleeping or just prior to it. In fact, recent research cited in the Journal Obesity revealed that mice experienced a 48% weight gain when given food during the time periods they normally slept.
Night Eating Syndrome and its Health Costs
Used to be that humans collected their food during the day and consumed all of it before sunset due to lack of refrigeration and other sophisticated food storage systems. These days we have technologically advanced methods of preserving and preparing food, and more and more late-night restaurants and grocery stores cater to our around-the-clock lifestyles. The result is we have the capability to eat whenever we want and, consequently, many of us have gotten into “night eating syndrome”, or NES. NES is a health-impacting habit where we consume 50% or more of our daily food intake after 8pm. It can result in the following health issues:
- Difficulty falling/staying asleep: Human circadian rhythms are set to start winding down after sunset so we can fall asleep at nightfall. If you eat a moderate to heavy meal during this time, your metabolism revs up for several hours trying to digest this food and will prevent you from falling asleep and/or staying asleep. This is especially true if you include red meat in that meal as your body has to work harder to digest it. So, the more you eat late at night, the more you habitually disrupt your normal sleep hours. As a result, chronic insomnia and elevated cortisol, a stress hormone, can occur. Elevated cortisol levels can cause you to gain weight in the form of belly fat, the worst kind.
- Weight gain: If you eat at night, and have also consumed a regular amount of food during the day, the extra meal that you eat at night will almost certainly be stored as fat. In fact, 1 in 4 people who are 100 lbs or more overweight engage in night eating.
- Diabetes/metabolic syndrome: The weight gain from eating additional late night meals significantly contributes to insulin resistance and/or diabetes.
- GERD, or acid reflux/heartburn: Eating late at night and then going to bed can be a recipe for acid reflux and heartburn, particularly if you eat anything with chocolate and/or tomato in it. Acid reflux can be severe and cause inflammation of the esophagus as well as keep you awake with its very uncomfortable symptoms.
- Sleep apnea: The obesity resulting from excessive late night eating significantly contributes to a condition called sleep apnea. This is the cessation of breathing while sleeping where you can suddenly wake up gasping for air. The stopping of breathing is a result of excessive fat deposits around the airway structures in the neck and laxity of the soft tissues of the tongue and palate. When the head is the prone position, these structures can tilt backward and block your airway. People who experience sleep apnea are also at higher risk for heart attack from the cutting off of oxygen. Sleep apnea sufferers almost always experience daytime sleepiness which can negatively impact their daily activities and cause accidents.
How To Break Night Eating Syndrome
Though there is some debate amongst medical professionals regarding the effects of late night eating, it’s been my experience with patients that they sleep better, have less trouble maintaining their weight, and have less stomach upsets if they don’t eat large meals at night. However, once you’ve established a long-term pattern of late night eating, it may be difficult to retrain yourself. Like quitting smoking, it takes a determined effort. So I’d like to share with you some suggestions that have helped my patients kick the habit of night eating:
- Do not eat a large meal after 7 pm. Save the heavy carbohydrates like potatoes, pasta, etc, for lunch or earlier afternoon meals. Stick to lighter, lower fat, meals with more vegetables and grains which are more quickly digested.
- Take a 30 minute walk, or some form of light aerobic exercise, after this meal which will help your food digest faster.
- Digestive supplements like bromelain can help to more completely digest meats and heavier fats which takes the body longer to break down.
- If you must eat a larger, late meal on occasion, avoid heavy fats and spices and wait 2 hours before you lie down to sleep. This will give your body a chance to use it for energy and help prevent heartburn.
- If you do experience heartburn and/or acid reflux symptoms, over-the-counter products containing famotidine (available at 24 hour pharmacies) can help alleviate the symptoms. Elevate the head of your bed 6 inches by using a foam wedge pillow specifically created for this purpose. These can be found at some drugstores or retail stores where pillows are sold, or medical equipment stores.
- A light snack is okay but time it so it’s 30-60 minutes before you actually get into bed to sleep. Clear, low fat soups like tomato or cream of mushroom, broccoli, chicken, or vegetable are good as hot liquids are more soothing and have an appetite suppressing bonus. Diabetics often benefit from a light, high protein, pre-bedtime snack to maintain even blood sugar levels while sleeping. A glass of low-fat milk with a few peanut butter crackers, or ½ whole wheat bagel, or slice of whole wheat toast spread with a little peanut butter are balanced carb/protein snacks.
- Rid your house of easy to pop-in-your-mouth junk snacks like chips, candy, etc. You’d be amazed at how many calories you can unconsciously consume this way.
- Stay busy after dinner instead of watching television where most late night eating occurs. Get involved with a project or activity that doesn’t involve food, then go to bed at your usual time.
- Brush your teeth! Simply changing the taste in your mouth to one more medicinal like toothpaste, or mouthwash, can help your taste buds turn off for the night.
Normal eating schedules have become harder and harder to maintain. With our 24/7 lifestyles, we may have unwittingly allowed night eating to become an accepted part of how we live. While it’s okay to have a light, balanced nutrition snack before bedtime, consuming larger, heavier meals at night can set us up for some serious health issues. Watch your food intake throughout the day, limit your night eating to no later than 7 pm, get some light activity afterwards, and you’ll be doing a lot to improve both your sleep health and weight control efforts. In addition, you’ll be helping yourself prevent more serious health issues and their consequences.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.