How Does Late-Night Snacking Affect Your Body?

Woman lying on sofa eating bowl of chips at night.

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Many people enjoy snacking later in the evening, especially during movie nights or game nights. Is this a healthy habit? People will often tell you to avoid late-night snacking because it's common to choose less nutritious snacks, such as ice cream or chips, at that time of day.

However, your digestive system also plays a role in why you may want to avoid late-night snacking. Snacking can affect how your digestive system functions late in the evening and throughout the night. Here, we will delve into the evidence behind different eating patterns, and break down why you may want to avoid late-night snacking.

Common Eating Patterns

There is no requirement on when you should eat. In simplistic terms, you should eat whenever you are hungry. However, research suggests that eating during certain time frames may help you to manage weight if that is a goal of yours.

In order to demystify the advice of avoiding late-night snacking, let's explore the science behind different eating and fasting patterns.

Eating in a 12-Hour Window

Your body runs on a circadian clock, meaning that it knows when to sleep, be awake, fast, or eat. This clock is affected by clues in your environment, such as the amount of surrounding light or the act of consuming food. When the clues in your environment shift, such as exposure to bright lights late at night, it can interrupt your body’s clock and make you hungry or awake when you shouldn’t be.

Studies suggest that it is optimal to eat within a 12-hour window during the day, and most of your calorie intake should be earlier in the day. This aligns with your circadian clock and supports why you may want to avoid eating later in the evening and at night.

During this 12-hour window, research suggests that you should eat smaller, more frequent meals if possible. Evidence suggests that those who eat smaller, more frequent meals during the day have lower cholesterol and a lower risk of type II diabetes. In these studies, eating smaller, more frequent meals also led to better weight control.

Eating in Shorter Windows

Eating in a shorter window, such as 10 am to 6 pm, may be helpful for weight management, as the condensed time frame may help you to avoid late-night snacking.

One study researched the effects of an 8-hour eating window. After about 12 weeks, the study concluded that eating in an 8-hour window decreased caloric intake and lowered body weight when compared to the average person’s eating window.

While a shorter eating window may be helpful, note that the nutrition choices you make during the non-fasting time is important. Selecting nutrient-packed options that help you to feel energized and fueled, such as whole grains, lean proteins, and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, is key to helping you feel your best.

Eating Early in the Day

When considering your circadian clock, research suggests that you should eat the majority of your calories early in the day. Your body expects to take in calories early in the day and will need those calories for energy throughout the rest of the day.

Studies show that skipping breakfast causes your body to crave those calories, and is correlated with the intake of energy-dense food - such as fast food. Eating breakfast can help you to stave off hunger, avoid cravings, and may lead to more nutritious food choices.

Eating Late at Night

Your circadian clock tells your body what “mode” it should be in. During the day, your body is ready to take in and use energy. During the night, your body expects you to rest and digest. As a result of this restful fasting time, many of your bodily functions, including your metabolism, slow down.

Thus, when you consume snacks at night when your metabolic rate is low, your body may not have a use for the extra energy and may store the calories as fat. If you're looking to maintain or lose weight, you may want to skip the late-night snack. However, if you're looking to gain weight, a nutrient-dense, pre-bed snack may be a good tool to keep you satisfied overnight without disrupting your sleep and digestion.

Besides being a weight management strategy, avoiding late-night snacking has other perks. As mentioned before, avoiding late-night snacking can help your body metabolize food more efficiently and improve your circadian clock. Yes, late-night snacking may interfere with your sleep patterns.

That said, it’s unrealistic to believe that you will never snack in the late evening. Eventually, you may want a snack or feel hungry in the evening. There are some ways you can eat late at night without the adverse effects. Research suggests choosing small portions of nutrient-dense, low-energy food.

An occasional late-night snack won't make or break your weight management goals. The negative effects generally seen by late-night snacking are due to habit. Repeatedly eating high-calorie snacks late at night will cause possible weight gain, but one late-night snack every once in a while will not affect you much.

Strategies to Avoid Late Night Snacking

Wondering how to avoid late-night snacking or how to select the most nutritious snacks to eat at night? Look no further. Here are some tips on avoiding late-night snacking or making the best of it.

Avoid skipping meals during the day

If you are having trouble avoiding late-night snacks, you should ensure you aren’t skipping meals during the day. Skipping meals leads to lower blood sugar. Your body naturally wants to balance its blood sugar, so you will become hungry if your blood sugar is low. This can lead to late-night snacking if you put off eating for too long.

Eat balanced meals throughout the day

Choose meals with a balance of macronutrients, including carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Cutting back on any one of these nutrients can result in a lack of satisfaction and hunger. Be sure to get enough fiber to keep you full and promote optimal digestion.

Mia Syn, MS, RD, and nutrition advisor to PanTheryx, recommends eating meals with plenty of nutrients, especially protein and fiber, and always remembering breakfast.

Consider why you are eating

Before reaching for your favorite late-night snack, it may be helpful to question why you are eating. For example, many people eat when bored or feeling other negative emotions.

Lindsey Mills, MS, RD, LD, recommends considering whether you are actually hungry. For example, if you are bored, you can recognize that and find an activity to occupy your mind. Likewise, if you are experiencing other emotions, it is best to acknowledge and sort through those.

Nutritious Late Night Snacks

If you are going to eat an evening snack, you should choose a small, nutrient-dense, low-energy food.

Serena Poon, celebrity chef, nutritionist, and reiki master suggests veggie alternatives to movie night snacks such as roasted chickpeas, kale chips, or carrots and celery.

Mia Syn, MS, RD, and nutrition advisor to PanTheryx, recommends trying air-popped popcorn with parmesan cheese or veggies and hummus as movie night alternatives as well.

A Word From Verywell

Late-night snacking can lead to a lowered metabolism and increased fat storage. While an occasional midnight snack is of no consequence, repeatedly late-night snacking may be undesirable, depending on your individual goals. You can avoid snacking at night by eating sufficient nutrients during the day, especially being sure to eat enough protein and fiber.

If you are still hungry late at night, it may be helpful to think about why. Many people will eat if bored or experiencing negative emotions. Even so, it is unrealistic to never eat at night again. Sometimes you will have a movie night or other reason to eat at night. During these times, you should turn to small, nutrient-dense, low-energy snacks, such as veggies.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Nicole M. LaMarco
Nicole M. LaMarco has 19 years of experience freelance writing for various publications. She researches and reads the latest peer-reviewed scientific studies and interviews subject matter experts. Her goal is to present that data to readers in an interesting and easy-to-understand way so they can make informed decisions about their health.