By: Erin Wyatt a recent ASU Nutrition Student
Do people really eat midnight snacks? I cannot stay awake that late so I cannot attest to snacking at all hours of the night. However, I have noticed that my dinner time has gotten pushed back later than usual due to the tiny human that I must feed, bathe, and put to bed each night. It turns out that these delayed meals may be doing my body a disservice. I have heard over the years that eating later leads to weight gain, though I did not know why. It turns out there are quite a few reasons why it is unhealthy to eat large quantities of food at night.
One of the main reasons that we should avoid nighttime eating is that our bodies are just not wired to handle it. Circadian rhythms are our bodies’ natural adaptations during a daily cycle.1 I thought they only affected our sleep patterns, responding to light and darkness. However, it also applies to our organs.1 Specifically, in our digestive organs, such as the stomach, intestines, pancreas, and liver, studies have shown that there are correlations between our rhythms and how they respond to food intake.2 For example, the pancreas releases insulin and glucagon, which controls our blood glucose levels. A study has shown that glucose tolerance was affected by meal times and avoiding large meals in the evenings may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.3 They determined this by observing workers who ate their biggest meal after their long shifts at the end of the day.3 I am sure many people can relate to that, as some days are just so busy that you forget or do not have the time to eat and then end up eating too much come dinner time. Another study related to food intake outside of the normal circadian rhythm to negatively affecting the brain’s memory.4
Not only does eating late have the potential to create adverse health effects, but it also contributes to weight gain. New research has shown the link between circadian rhythm and the control of adipose tissue, or fat.2 Food is the energy source of adipose tissue in our bodies. Therefore, if we are eating a lot of calories at a time when we cannot properly manage the intake, it may result in fat accumulation.2 Weight gain could also be caused by the fact that the later we eat, the more times we eat during the day overall.5
So, how can we be more mindful of when we eat? Shifting dinner time up would be helpful, even if your schedule only allows a little bit of wiggle room. Sometimes we eat dinner at a reasonable hour, but since we stay up too late watching a Netflix marathon, we get hungry again and end up snacking. If snacking or late dinners happen, try consuming more protein than carbohydrates and sugar. Also, keeping bedtime on the earlier side would prevent hunger to strike. Remember, your body knows what time it is, even if you are sleepwalking.
- National Institute of General Medical Sciences. (2017). Circadian rhythms. Retrieved from https://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/pages/factsheet_circadianrhythms.aspx
- Garaulet, M., Gomez-Abelian, P. (2014). Timing of food intake and obesity: a novel association. Physiol Behav 134: 44-50.
- Morgan, L.M., Shi, J.W., Hampton, S.M., Frost, G. (2012). Effect of meal timing and glycaemic index on glucose control and insulin secretion in healthy volunteers. Br J Nutr 108(7): 1286-91.
- Loh, D.H., Jami, S.A., Flores, R.E., Truong, D., Ghiani, C.A., O’Dell, T.J., Colwell, C.S. (2015) Misaligned feeding impairs memories. Elife 10;
- Reid, K.J., Barong, K.G., Zee, P.C. (2014). Meal timing influences daily caloric intake in healthy adults. Nutr Res 34(11); 930-5.