If you have a less than usual work schedule, or tend to be a night owl, the chances are you have wondered, at least occasionally, how long to wait to sleep after eating, especially if you suffer from sleep symptoms that could be characterized as insomnia.
The majority of dietitians recommend that you try to wait at least three hours before heading to bed after you eat your last meal of the day. But what about bedtime snacks? Are they OK? What if your schedule just does not allow for that much time to pass between dinner and bedtime, will it affect your sleep – or your health – that much? Then there is the claim that eating late at night causes weight gain. Is that true?
These questions – and others – are what we are going to take a closer look at here.
How Long Should You Wait Between Eating Your Last Meal and Sleeping
As mentioned, the very broad ‘rule of thumb’ is that you should allow for at least three hours to pass after getting up from the dinner table to head to bed. Even longer – four to five hours – is ideal according to some dietitians.
The reason for this is your body needs to digest that last meal properly. If proper digestion is not complete when you hit the sheets you may end up suffering from heartburn, which is something that is neither pleasant nor conducive to a good night’s sleep.
What Happens if You Sleep Immediately After Eating
Occasional heartburn is harmless, if unpleasant, but those who suffer from it a lot may damage the delicate tissues of their esophagus and drugs taken to relieve it – even the OTC kind – have their own set of side effects too. So doing whatever you can to avoid it is always the best idea.
Another health claim made by some for many years- that going to bed too soon after eating will cause an unhealthy spike in blood sugar – has now largely been disproven, after a large 2019 study conducted in Japan found no relationship between blood sugar levels and the timing of meals and sleep.
Then there is the weight issue. However, that issue is so complicated that it deserves its own discussion.
Does Late Night Eating Lead to Weight Gain?
One of the things that most people have heard about eating late at night, too close to bedtime, is that doing so will lead to unnecessary weight gain. It is something that has been considered to be accurate for decades.
This hypothesis came largely from research conducted on animals like mice and rats. Some of these studies found that late night eating in mice disturbed their circadian rhythms – the internal body clock that tells us when to sleep, when to wake up, when to eat etc. – and the majority of the mice gained weight in comparison to their peers who ate earlier.
However, subsequent studies in humans have not supported these findings. For example, a large scale study of 1600 people, with some allowed to eat past 8pm and others told to take their last bites of food at 6pm, found no significant difference in weight gain. However, they were all eating the same, healthy, calorie restricted food and consuming the same number of calories throughout the day.
A second study found that, left to their own devices, people consumed more calories if they ate later in the evening, leading to weight gain versus those who stopped eating earlier.
This, researchers said, was not because of the timing per se, but because many of those people were eating junk food later at night: chips, cookies, candy and were then heading to bed without exercising or even moving around very much to burn off some of those excess calories. They were also fuller in the morning and as a result skipped breakfast, something that is bad for your health in general and can lead to unintended weight gain.
On that subject, if you are a late night snacker who makes those poor food choices some studies have shown that eating a good sized, healthy breakfast – around 600 calories – had significantly fewer snack cravings for the rest of the day, and the evening, than those who skipped breakfast or ate a small breakfast of 300 calories or less.
This depends of course on making good breakfast choices. Three donuts are 600 calories, but they are not particularly good for you. Try eating eggs, which are also full of energy enhancing protein, fruit smoothies with a bowl of oatmeal or wholewheat toast or bagels with a low calorie spread.
Stress can also lead to ‘emotional eating‘ in the evening, and making those unhealthy food choices. If you seem to fit that pattern, make an active effort to relax and unwind rather than reaching for the ice cream, something that will help you sleep better in general anyway.
What To Eat Before Bedtime?
Ideals and the real world often do not match up well. For some people eating at 5pm every night just is not an option. If you have to cook for others first, if you work later shifts, or if your life just does not allow for an earlier dinner, then eating later may be unavoidable.
As we just covered, research has shown it is not when you eat before bedtime that matters most but what you eat. A heavy meal three hours before bed IS a bad idea because you simply will not give your body the time to digest it. A lighter meal in the early evening is OK, but you should still allow as much time as possible before bed.
However, there have also been studies that have demonstrated that a very light snack before bed – under 150 calories – may help some people sleep. The key to success – and preventing sleep disturbances and weight gain – is to choose nutrient rich bedtime snacks that are gentle on your digestive system too.
Some great, healthy under 150 calorie choices include all the following:
- 1 cup of fresh chopped bananas and raspberries
- 1/8 cup of your favorite nuts
- A prepackaged lowfat Greek yogurt like Choibani
- 2 cups of baby carrots
- 3 1/2 cups plain air popped popcorn
- 1 cup tart cherries (which some studies have shown can help relieve non-food related insomnia)
- 2 peeled kiwis
- 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds (which have also been shown to help with general insomnia)
- 4 plain crackers and one slice of cheese (2 slices if you choose a soft cheese like Brie)
- Apple slices and a teaspoon of almond butter
- 1 slice of wholewheat toast with a thin layer of butter
One final note. You should also watch what you drink, as well as eat before bed. Caffeine is in more than coffee and will likely keep you awake if you consume it five hours or less before bed.
So, in addition to foregoing an evening coffee you should also skip caffeinated sodas and juice drinks.
Some black teas have more caffeine in them than you might imagine too, so try to stick to herbal tea at night, which may help you sleep better, especially the Sleepytime blends that contain ingredients like chamomile, Valerian root and lemon bark, all of which are believed to promote more restful sleep.