Eating later in the night has long been thought of as the fast track to weight gain — you probably even grew up hearing the maxim, “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” Adelle Davis, a nutritionist in the ’60s who pioneered an early fight against processed food and promoted vitamin supplementation, coined this quote, and was one that my mom made sure wormed its way into my young head.
The daughter of a butcher, my mom was really into big, meaty breakfasts with lots of sausage, scrapple (if you’re not familiar with the tasty pork scraps loaf, take a look…), and sometimes, on Sunday, a steak to go with eggs. Cereals were limited to the bland boxes sans colorful cartoon characters trumpeting their sweet goodness in neon rainbow blasts and puffs of cinnamon sugar. Lunch was a similarly meaty affair with lots of stuffed sandwiches, but when dinner rolled around, plates were piled with more greenery and fewer starches, and the portions of meat were smaller and tended toward leaner fare such as fish and chicken — all in all, not a bad diet, even if it was a little heavy on the saturated fat in the morning.
I didn’t grow up overweight, and I was heavily involved in sports, so these kinds of meals helped me maintain energy and focus throughout the day, and build muscle while sleeping at night. But, inevitably, as activity levels drop, weight goes up if you don’t make a conscious effort to readjust your diet. Energy taken in needs to match energy burned to maintain a lean physique.
But, recent research suggests that weight control — at least for healthy individuals — isn’t necessarily contingent on when you eat, but more what you eat and how much.
Is Eating at Night OK?
A bunch of studies from the last decade have been battling between eating a big breakfast versus a big dinner for the sake of helping you lose weight, build muscle, and be healthier. You can find numerous papers that support both opinions.
For example, a 2013 study published in the journal Obesity found that eating a breakfast that comprised half your daily calories may help with weight loss and insulin sensitivity, but scientists at Oregon Health & Science University published a study in Obesity Research that concluded that monkeys who were fed later at night did not gain more weight than those who were fed a similar diet earlier in the day. And a 2015 analysis that appeared in the journal Nutrients revealed that eating a small (less than 150 calories), nutrient-dense snack before bed could have a positive impact on metabolism and overnight muscle protein synthesis in certain populations.
That being said, you should be cautious about what foods you do eat at night, for a variety of reasons. “Eating unhealthy food — or a lot of food — late at night before going to bed can disrupt our sleep and cause stomach aches and indigestion,” says Jim White, R.D., ACSM Health Fitness Specialist, owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios, and Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics spokesperson. “And stay away from spicy foods, as they can cause heartburn and acid reflux, making it hard to sleep.”
During sleep, our bodies rest and recover, promoting muscle and tissue growth and protein synthesis. “Casein protein is a great protein to digest before bed since it is a slow-digesting protein, and gives you the amino acids you need to repair muscles for a longer period of time,” he says.
What Foods to Eat and What Foods to Avoid at Night
Here are some strategies we put together to help make eating at night work for you.
Eat a healthy dinner
The best way to keep cravings at bay and keep your waist slim and trim is to have a healthy dinner filled with veggies, whole grains, protein, and healthy fats. (Psst — this is what you should be eating for every meal.) Try to make half of your plate a variety of colorful vegetables; a quarter whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, or barley; a quarter lean protein such as fish, chicken, or beans; and use plant oils such as olive and sunflower.
Stay away from processed snacks
If you get a late-night craving after your dinner while sitting in front of the TV, don’t fall into the high-calorie, low-nutrient cycle that many people end up repeating. Keep the chips, cookies, and candy for special treats (or better yet, eliminate them from your diet), not for when you’re plopped in front of the tube.
Snack on small portions of whole foods
When you get a bit peckish after dinner, go for something that packs more nutrients and less calories — look for foods higher in protein and fiber to help tamp down temptation. Try noshing on a small handful of mixed nuts, a small bag of popcorn, or some sliced veggies and hummus.
Eat casein protein
If you are regularly exercising and trying to build muscle, having some casein protein — a milk protein similar to whey — before you snuggle up for a snooze can help supply your muscles with much-needed protein throughout the night. Casein is slow digesting compared to whey’s fast absorption rate. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Protein Powders for more details.
Eating after dinner doesn’t mean you’re doomed to gain weight. Just be smart about what and how much you eat.