It has become a well-known piece of advice that you should avoid eating late at night.
There are many excellent reasons why people say this and, for the most part, it is true.
But there is definitely some nuance when it comes to what sort of food you are eating.
It’s probably not a good idea to eat a pizza or other fatty foods as a late-night snack.
However, what about if you have a salad before bed?
Is that as bad for you as a heavy meal?
Why is Eating Late at Night Bad For You?
We’ve all been there.
You’re hanging out in front of the TV, and it’s been hours since dinnertime, so you head to the kitchen to fix yourself something to eat before you go to bed.
There are excellent reasons why so many people say that this isn’t the best thing to do for your health.
But why is that?
It can be difficult to imagine why the time of day that you eat food can impact your health.
Does Late-Night Eating Make You Put on Weight?
The short answer is, unfortunately, yes.
One study found that eating a large amount of food later in the day and nighttime was associated with higher body weight.
And it can also make weight loss more difficult.
There are a few possible reasons for this:
1) Nighttime eating increases your overall calorie intake
If you eat three square meals a day and then go on to eat at nighttime, you will be adding additional calories to your diet that maybe you don’t actually need.
And any calories that you eat that are above the number of calories you burn on a given day will be stored in your body as fat.
2) Nighttime eating encourages mindless eating
When you snack at nighttime, you will most likely watch TV, browse the internet, or play a video game.
Eating in front of the television can increase the amount of food you eat by 14%.
This is because you aren’t focused on your hunger cues, so you carry on eating even once you are full.
3) Nighttime eating tends to be emotional
There are two reasons why we reach for food.
The first is that your body gives you hunger cues to tell you that it’s time to eat.
The second is that you are eating for emotional reasons.
It doesn’t mean that you are eating because you are sad.
It can also mean that you are eating because you are bored, or lonely, or stressed.
In people who do tend to eat at nighttime, whether or not the eating is emotional in nature is a predictor of whether they will put on weight.
In other words, if you eat at night because you are hungry, then you may not put on any extra weight.
But if you eat at night for emotional reasons, you are more likely to put on weight.
4) Nighttime eating leads to poor food choices
We tend to be tired by the time it comes to eating at night.
We might be staying up to watch “just one more” episode of that show on Netflix, or in the middle of a fun group chat discussion, or trying to beat one more level of a video game.
Whatever the reason, when you reach for the snacks late at night, you are probably heading into sleep deprivation.
And sleep deprivation can do some strange things to your food cravings.
Sleep deprivation actually changes the way your brain operates in the areas related to hunger.
The areas that are related to conscious control over food intake become blunted. In contrast, the area that relates to the desirability of foods gets boosted so that you start to crave specifically high-calorie foods that can promote weight gain.
5) Nighttime eating makes your sleep worse
So we know that sleep deprivation can make it more likely that you’ll snack on unhealthy foods late at night, but, in a cruel twist of fate, eating late at night can lead to sleep deprivation.
This can leave you in a vicious cycle that can be quite hard to break out of.
Nighttime eating can stop you from falling asleep in the first place, which can make your sleep duration less than it should be.
It can also mean that your sleep quality isn’t as good because you wake up more and don’t go through all of the sleep cycles you need to be properly rested.
And if you suffer from sleep apnea, it can also make this worse, meaning that you’ll get even less rest.
We know that the types of food you will crave at night will be high in fat and calories, which can also disrupt your sleep.
They can make it harder for you to get to sleep, they can stop you from getting enough REM sleep, and they can also make your sleep apnea worse.
What Foods Help You Sleep?
If you find that you can’t completely cut out the late-night snacking, or if your lifestyle means that the food you eat at night is part of your normal daily calorie intake, there are actions that you can take to try and stop nighttime eating from having any negative effects on your body.
And one of the best things you can do is to be mindful of your food choices.
We have seen a strong link between sleep deprivation and a craving for high-calorie foods that you eat late at night, which then go on to cause sleep deprivation.
One of the best things that you can do to break this link is choosing foods that will fill you up and help you get to sleep.
And they can also help to change your sleeping habits.
We can group humans into three sleep categories:
- Early birds – these people tend to go to sleep early and wake up early.
- Night owls – these people tend to go to sleep late and wake up late.
- Midrange sleepers – these people have sleep habits that aren’t as extreme as night owls or early birds and they fall somewhere in the middle.
The category that you fall into is mainly down to your genetics.
The theory is that it made evolutionary sense to have someone awake to protect the social group at all times, so staggered sleeping times were selected.
But you aren’t just a slave to your genetics because your diet can actually modulate your chronotype (how your genes are expressed) for sleep habits.
People who are early birds tend to eat foods rich in calcium, vitamin B6, vegetables, and pulses.
Night owls tend to eat more fatty foods, sweet foods, and meat and drink more alcohol and caffeine.
The effects of alcohol and caffeine on sleep are well documented, and both will make it more difficult to get to sleep, which can make your night owl tendencies more extreme.
But the other foods in your diet can also have an impact.
1) B vitamins
The B vitamins are a cluster of vitamins vital to many of the body’s processes, and some of them can have quite a significant impact on your sleep.
Vitamin B12 increases the amount of melatonin that your body produces.
Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by your pineal gland, and it helps regulate your sleep cycle.
Making sure that your body produces enough melatonin is important if you want to feel sleepy and get to sleep when you should.
Niacinamide is another B vitamin that can influence your sleep by significantly increasing the amount of time that you spend in REM sleep.
REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is an important part of your sleep cycle and is when learning and memory consolidation happens.
Vitamin B6 helps to increase the amount of serotonin produced by your body.
Serotonin on its own doesn’t affect your sleep, but it is an important precursor to melatonin.
So by increasing the amount of serotonin, vitamin B6 can help to increase your melatonin levels.
Foods that are high in B vitamins include:
- Whole grains
- Dark leafy veg
- Fruit – citrus fruits, bananas, avocados
Low levels of magnesium are associated with insomnia and poor sleep quality.
It can also increase your risk of anxiety and depression, which both contribute to poor sleep.
Magnesium is thought to increase the production of serotonin, which then goes on to increase the production of melatonin.
And magnesium supplements have been found to improve sleep quality and reduce insomnia.
Foods that are high in magnesium include:
- Whole grains
- Dark leafy veg
Why You Should Eat Salad Before Bed
So far, we’ve covered why eating late at night can be bad for you and the types of foods that can help you to get a good night’s sleep.
Let’s put all of that together and think about what you should be eating if you want (or need) to eat before bedtime.
We know that when we are sleep-deprived, our brains crave high-calorie foods, but these can promote weight gain, contribute to high cholesterol, and put you at risk of heart disease.
They can also make it more difficult for you to sleep and make your sleep quality worse.
Instead, eating something like a salad before bed that is packed full of B vitamins and magnesium can help to promote restful sleep.
Thankfully, as we have seen, there is quite a lot of crossover between foods that are high in B vitamins and foods that are high in magnesium, so you should look to make up a salad before bed that contains:
- Legumes, such as beans or lentils
- Whole grains, such as quinoa
- Dark leafy veg, such as kale or spinach
- Banana (you can have this as a little dessert afterward if you prefer)
Productivity tip: If you make your own salad, you can use a salad chopper that easily transforms vegetables into a chopped salad.
It is important to remember that a salad isn’t always a healthy choice.
It all really depends on the ingredients that you put in.
Try to avoid ingredients like:
- Ranch dressing
- Blue cheese dressing
- Thousand Island dressing
- Fat-free dressing that is full of sugar
- Crispy chicken or any other deep-fried addition (if you want to add meat it is better to grill it)
- Bacon bits
- Dried fruit
- Candied nuts
- Acidic foods such as citrus fruits and tomatos.
These types of foods tend to be high in fat, sugar, and salt, which are exactly what you should be avoiding when eating late at night.
Remember that just because something is called a salad, it doesn’t mean that it is good for you.
And you really want your salad before bed to be as healthy as possible so that you can avoid the negative effects of eating late at night.
The rule of thumb when making a healthy salad is to make sure the ingredients are fresh and haven’t been processed.
Avoid cheese, and make sure that there isn’t any added sugar.
Not having these elements doesn’t mean that your salad before bed won’t be filling.
Using small amounts of seeds or nuts, for example, instead of croutons and bacon bits will give you that added crunch and make you feel full, without packing in the salt and fat.
How Long Before Bedtime Should You Eat a Salad?
It is not recommended to eat right before bedtime.
It would be better to let your body digest the food a little before lying on your bed.
Therefore, eating a salad 90 – 120 minutes before going to sleep should reduce the chance of snacks at night without increasing too much the risk of acid reflux.
You won’t be able to digest all the food in 2 hours. Therefore it is recommended to sleep on your left side.
Sleeping on your left side can aid your digestion process because gravity helps the food reach the stomach.
Side sleeping has many health advantages but it requires you to make some adjustments.
I cover those adjustments in this article.
Making sure that you eat enough during the day can also help curb your nighttime eating habits, as can making sure that you get enough sleep.
But those things aren’t always possible, and some of us are just hard-wired to have our days shifted slightly towards the nighttime.
In those instances, reaching for a salad before bed instead of an unhealthy snack can make all the difference to your health and wellbeing.