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New Research: Late Night Eating Leads to Weight Gain [But no one knows why]

Posted May 19 2011 11:11pm

Google “funny sleeping baby” – it will make your whole day, I promise!

People have been talking about it for decades but it officially became A Thing when Oprah declared (Dear Oprah, I miss you already!) on her show that for her Best Life Diet she was no longer eating after 8 p.m. I scoffed. “Doesn’t she know that a calorie is a calorie no matter what time of day you eat it?” It turns out that Oprah was right and I was wrong. (She was also right about white jeans making a comeback.) As I got older and little deeper into this whole weight management thing – two rounds of eating disorder therapy plus a year with Geneen Roth yammering in your head will really make you examine every facet of your eating habits – I realized that what Oprah had said holds true for me too. (Still not buying any white jeans though.)

When I eat after dinner, I tend to gain weight. When I don’t, my weight is stable. I also discovered that I sleep better on an empty stomach – a big meal right before bed makes me restless, have heartburn and really whacked out dreams. Especially if that meal involved a lot of sugar. Although, not gonna lie, the crazy dreams can sometimes be pretty awesome. (There was this one where Oprah called and offered the Gym Buddies and I our own show. Strangely the part I was most excited about was that I got purple hair extensions.)

I always thought that this was because as I got more tired, I craved sugar and simple carbs to keep me awake. Plus the more tired I am the less inhibited I am and the more likely I am to make poor food choices. Half a pan of Rice Krispie bars once disappeared between 10 and 11 p.m. My kids have an ongoing investigation into who took their lunch treats but considering I was the only other person in the house that evening… If I stand at the counter and only cut off paper-thin slices that doesn’t count as “eating”, right?

New research published in the journal Obesity backs up Oprah saying that people who eat after 8 p.m. have higher BMIs than people who don’t , even when controlling for factors like “night owls” vs. “morning larks”, gender, intake of fruits and vegetables, sleep timing and sleep duration. In their words : “These findings indicate that caloric intake after 8:00 PM may increase the risk of obesity, independent of sleep timing and duration. Future studies should investigate the biological and social mechanisms linking timing of sleep and feeding in order to develop novel time-based interventions for weight management.”

Besides feeling like a zoo animal – “biological and social mechanisms linking timing of sleep and feeding in order to develop novel time-based interventions”, how many times do I have to press the level before I get bananas instead of electric shocks mommy? – this study surprised me just for the fact that the researchers basically admit they don’t know why this happens, only that it does. Perhaps there is some metabolic mechanism that alters digestion after the sun sets? A lack of sunlight signals hunger cues? My pet theory about exhaustion bringing out my sugar beast? The study was only 52 people but it certainly jives with my experience that weight loss is way more complicated than simply calories in/calories out. There is just so much that affects both of those factors.

My ideal bedtime is 10 pm at the latest (Danger Will Robinson, the time is now 9:46 p.m.) but I’m rarely in bed by then. I’ve noticed, however, that the nights I do hit the horizontal by 10, I don’t feel hungry but if I stay up even an extra hour I’m suddenly ravenous. Of course there are multitudinous other benefits to going to bed early besides weight management but I find this one fascinating. But why does it work this way? WHY?

Bonus – shortest mini-Experiment ever: So I recently read an article about  the benefits of sleeping on hard surfaces and it convinced me to try it out. I often nap on the floor (I just lay where I fall , folks) so I didn’t think it would be hard to sleep a whole night there. It was awful. I’m a side sleeper and my hips soon were in so much pain that I penitently crawled back into my big squishy modern spine-wrenching bed. It felt AWESOME. I was never meant to be a cave girl. (Although I did run my Tabata sprint on Wednesday in my socks! Didn’t want to go totally barefoot – you never know what germies are on the treadmills!)

What have you noticed about your sleep habits vs. your hunger? Do you have a theory about why, even after controlling for other factors, people that eat after 8 pm gain weight? Have you ever slept on the ground? Will you wear white jeans?

Baby cheeks are the best!!

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