What Time is Too Late to Eat?

As a nutrition professional here at Movara, there is one question I get asked more than any other: “When should I quit eating at night?”

It’s a good question, with a longer answer than most people expect. You should know that I rarely answer a question without asking more questions, because I prefer to take a big-picture approach to food. The pattern I see most often is that individuals typically skip breakfast, grab lunch if they can find the time, drink a diet soda in the afternoon rather than nourish their body with a wholesome snack and get home ravenous for dinner. Dinner tends to be a 3-4 hour event, with most of the day’s food eaten in the evening. Trying to go to sleep while digesting a large amount of food is very difficult. Sleep is often restless in this scenario, which usually leads to waking up groggy and fatigued. You probably won’t be hungry for breakfast if you ate a lot right before bed, which means you skip breakfast and the cycle continues.

Because this seems to be more common than not, I think it’s worthwhile to consider the overall pattern, rather than what time to quit eating at night. If you can see yourself in this example, or even part of this example, I would encourage you to first start eating more regular, balanced meals. Aim to eat a meal or snack every 3-4 hours, based on hunger and fullness levels, to prevent from getting overly hungry for any meal. You can stay much more level headed about food choices and amounts when you aren’t starving. The simple act of feeling full and satisfied at regular intervals throughout the day is a strong first step in eliminating night-time eating. After establishing more regular balanced meals, it would be wise to experiment with stopping eating about 2-3 hours before bed. If you are trying to digest your food when trying to get to sleep, it will be difficult to get into the deepest REM cycle of sleep. It’s easy to wake up still sleepy if that’s the case and you may find you are more likely to rely on stimulants (caffeine, sugar, processed snacks) in order to stay awake and alert throughout the day.

So let’s say you go to sleep at 11:00 pm. That means you should probably think about dinner at 8:00-9:00 at the latest – much later than any diet has told you! There really isn’t some magic time when “your metabolism stops” as you may have been told. Furthermore, let’s say you have dinner at 5:00 and you don’t go to bed until 10:00 or 11:00 pm. Chances are very good (if portion sizes at 5:00 have been reasonable and you have stopped eating once you were satisfied) that you will get hungry again before bed and you and I both know how hard it is to get to sleep if you are hungry. Once again, we face this idea of balance between being hungry and overly full. There is no reason not to have a snack at 8:00 and feel well fed, with food digested, in order to get good sleep.

One final note, remember that if you are overly hungry at night, and especially if you are waking up hungry in the middle of the night, you aren’t eating enough during the day. I am sure you have many concerns that may be food related (digestive issues, sleep concerns, blood sugar fluctuations, headaches, fatigue…) but don’t make this harder than it needs to be. Start here first: regular, balanced meals (carb, protein, fat with a fruit or vegetable) every 3-5 hours (with a snack between if needed) and I promise you that many of those concerns will take care of themselves.

Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD