Myth or Fact: Does Eating Late at Night Cause Weight Gain?

Woman opening fridge and reaching inside

It is a commonly held belief that eating late at night causes weight gain. But is this myth or fact? And if it’s true, why does this happen? The relationship between eating time and weight change has been the subject of recent research as we look for more ways to help people manage their weight. Let’s discuss what the research shows and how you might be able to put this into practice to manage your weight and overall health. 

Does Eating Late at Night Cause Weight Gain?

Based on the research, it appears that there is in fact a relationship between eating late and weight gain and there are likely multiple reasons for it. 

  • Late bedtime – Eating late at night likely means that bedtime is late as well. Studies show that persons who stay up later tend to eat more, about 500 calories more on average. And those calories are consumed in the late hours of the night / early hours of the morning before bed. So a late bedtime leads to eating more total calories in a day, which causes weight gain. 
  • Food preferences – Short sleep duration has been associated with an increased preference for carbohydrates and sweets. This is likely associated with seeking out foods that provide quick energy in a state of sleep deprivation. Additionally, we tend to prefer higher calorie snack-type foods when eating late at night. Unsurprising, as I think most people would agree that carrot sticks just don’t have the same appeal as potato chips at 11 o’clock at night. 

Hormonal changes – In addition to the changes to hunger and fullness hormone signals described above, eating closer to bedtime increases insulin and blood sugar levels at night and first thing in the morning. Insulin is a hormone that tells our body to store fat, so higher insulin levels encourage fat storage and weight gain. Not to mention the increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

In What Other Ways is Eating Before Bed Bad For You?

Eating before bed can have adverse effects on your health in other ways too. For one thing, dinner is often our biggest meal of the day, and when you have a big meal and then lay down, it increases the potential for acid reflux. Acid reflux (also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD) is when contents from your stomach come back up into your esophagus. Over time, GERD can cause serious problems such as inflammation of the esophagus, narrowing of the esophagus making it difficult to swallow, and even cancer. 
Eating before bed also increases blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. These effects can lead to an increased risk for type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, both of which increase the potential for developing heart disease.

Can I Eat Late at Night and Still Lose Weight?

It’s certainly possible. Eating late at night is not the sole determinant for whether or not someone will be successful at losing weight. While the research suggests that eating later can lead to weight gain, some of this effect is secondary to food choices when late-night snacking and short sleep duration. If you are mindful about what you are eating, eating a reduced calorie diet, participating in regular physical activity and getting adequate sleep, then it is likely that a later eating schedule will not stop you from losing weight. It is still important to keep in mind that there can be other negative effects to eating right before bed, so trying to eat more calories earlier in the day tends to be best for overall health.

What Strategies Can I Use to Combat Weight Gain from Eating Before Bed?

For many people, the time between dinner and bed can be particularly challenging when it comes to healthy eating. Here are some strategies to help you have healthier habits during this time: 

  • Check in with your hunger. If you find yourself in the kitchen after dinner, ask yourself why. Are you physically hungry? Or are you having a craving or eating out of habit? Try drinking 16 ounces of water and waiting 20 minutes. If you’re still hungry, choose a healthy snack like an apple or carrots with hummus if you prefer something crunchy. 
  • Have balanced meals throughout the day. If you find yourself hungry in the evening, consider if you’re eating the right foods earlier in the day. Having regular meals and snacks with protein, produce, and high-fiber carbohydrates throughout the day can help you to control your hunger even late in the day. 
  • Keep a healthy food environment. It’s very difficult to avoid eating less healthful snacks at the end of a long, tiring day. Instead of relying on willpower, try to keep tempting foods out of the house. If your family members insist on having them in the house, keep them in opaque containers that are out of sight and have more healthful options available for those times when you need a snack. 
  • Disconnect less healthful habits. For many people, evening TV watching goes hand-in-hand with eating. Try disconnecting these behaviors. Sip on some decaffeinated tea or busy your hands with an activity like knitting. Or change the TV habit. A walk after dinner helps you to avoid evening eating and is also good for digestion. Not to mention it also helps you get in some additional physical activity for the day! 
  • Go to bed earlier. This may be easier said than done, but having an earlier bedtime is a good habit for many reasons. You will eat less in the evening and get more sleep – both of which are good for your health! If you have always been a night owl, try setting small goals for getting to bed earlier – can you go to bed just 15 or 30 minutes earlier this week? Then continue to increase until you’ve reached your desired bedtime. Set an alarm on your phone that goes off when you need to start getting ready for bed (not when you’re supposed to be in bed) to remind you that it’s time to get moving in that direction.
  • Offer yourself self-compassion. Changing the habit of eating in the evening, especially after years of practice, can be hard. If you have a few nights where you manage to avoid it, but then it happens again, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, recognize that this will be a process and celebrate your successes. Be curious about what made some nights possible and some nights hard, and then move on. Tomorrow is a new day and you can try again with all the tools reviewed above. 

How Form Health® Can Help You with your Weight Loss Journey

If you’re struggling to incorporate healthy eating and sleeping habits into your life, the weight loss experts at Form Health can help you establish skills to reach your weight loss goals and improve your overall health. Our insurance-covered medical weight loss program will give you the tools to help you lose weight while building new habits to keep it off. Each Form Health patient partners with a Board Certified Doctor and a Registered Dietitian to create a personalized weight loss plan that includes nutrition, physical activity, mindset shifts and FDA-approved medication, if appropriate. The program is delivered entirely through the Form Health app, which allows patients unlimited, frequent communication with their care team via video visits and messaging, weight and food tracking, and access to educational content. 

Get started with Form Health today by taking our quiz to see if medical weight loss is right for you.

Questions about medical weight loss? Schedule a free call with an enrollment specialist to learn more.

About the Author: Brooke Marsico, PA-C, completed her physician assistant training at Midwestern University in 2011. She began her practice in the field of Obesity Medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago where she practiced from 2016 to 2021. She went on to treat patients living with obesity at Cleveland Clinic from 2021 to 2022 prior to joining the team at Form Health. Brooke is passionate about helping patients living with obesity achieve meaningful weight loss and improve their health. Her practice focuses on individualized behavioral and pharmacological intervention to help patients reach their goals. She is also experienced in managing patients who have a history of bariatric surgery.

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