Can you eat before going to bed?

Do you often find yourself eating right before bed? Night time eating is a common and often practical option for many people, whether it’s due to routine, hunger, or getting home from work late. However, negative connotations are portrayed by the media around this habit, telling us ‘it’s bad to eat after 6 pm’ or ‘don’t eat too late, or it will interfere with weight loss’. So, it’s unsurprising that those with weight loss or maintenance goals are left feeling confused or guilty for these late-night munchies, afraid that it may lead to weight gain.

But is it actually harmful to eat late at night and will it lead to undesired weight gain? In this article, we aim to clear up these misconceptions by showing the effect of pre-sleep nutrition on body composition and performance, as well as our recommendations for who should use it.

Pre-sleep nutrition

When we talk about pre-sleep nutrition in this article, we are referring to small meals or snacks (about 150-200cals), high in protein, consumed about 30mins before bed. It is important to note that we are not referring to large, complete meals. Examples of pre-sleep snacks include, but are not limited to:

  • A glass of milk (soy or cow’s milk)
  • A small tub of plain yoghurt
  • Protein shake

Keep in mind that these are not the only snacks suitable to eat before bed, but they are the ones used in research studies

Body composition

Emerging evidence suggests that consuming a small, protein-rich snack before bed has no adverse effects on body composition and in some cases, may have favourable effects.

Pre-sleep nutrition may actually aid in weight loss. When combined with regular exercise, a pre-sleep high protein snack is linked to increased resting energy expenditure the following morning and feelings of satiety. Over time, this may aid adherence to a weight loss diet, leading to decreases in fat mass.

Similarly, increases in muscle protein synthesis (a fancy term describing muscle repair and growth) have been observed when pre-sleep nutrition is coupled with exercise. And, seeing as there is no harm in having this pre-bed snack, this may provide another opportunity for protein consumption, which is especially beneficial for those with inadequate daily protein intakes and further supports muscle growth and recovery.

The benefits of exercising on top of using pre-sleep nutrition extends beyond body composition. When trialling pre-sleep nutrition in sedentary subjects, no or poorer changes to some markers of health, including insulin sensitivity, were observed. However, when pre-sleep nutrition was coupled with regular exercise, improvements in these health markers were improved.

Impacts on performance

Currently, there is limited evidence directly linking pre-sleep nutrition to improved performance. However, it may improve performance indirectly through the following mechanisms:

  • Increases carbohydrate metabolism during exercise. This means that our body is using carbohydrates as its primary energy source during training, which is our body’s preferred and most efficient fuel source
  • Increased daily protein intake, which promotes muscle growth and repair
  • It may be an additional strategy for increasing hydration levels, especially if the pre-sleep snack is a beverage
  • Reduced hunger pre-exercise and reduced requirement for nutrition during exercise, especially for endurance athletes competing in the morning

Who should use pre-sleep nutrition?

Pre-sleep nutrition may not be required or preferred by everyone. But, it won’t harm you and it may be beneficial, particularly for groups of people including:

  • Those who struggle to consume enough protein during the day
  • Ultra-endurance athletes, especially those in multiday events, which start early in the morning and/or finish late at night
  • Athletes with events or training in the morning, especially those who lack appetite in the morning or want to avoid gastrointestinal upset during exercise
  • Those trying to lose weight, in conjunction with exercise, as it may increase adherence and decrease daily energy intake due to increased satiety.

The bottom line is, if eating a small snack before bed suits your lifestyle or you just prefer eating around this time, that’s fine! It won’t hurt and it might help.