Nocturnal Noshing: Sleep Deprivation and Overeating

Unless you’re a swing-shift worker, where your nights are days and your days are nights, you shouldn’t be chowing down when the moon is up!

According to a Northwestern University study, eating after 8 p.m. can increase your risk of obesity. This five-year study showed that eating late disrupts sleep patterns, and we know that unsettled sleep can give rise to weight gain. These findings are also reinforced by a recent study at the University of Pennsylvania’s Division of Sleep and Chronobiology. This research, which was reported in the journal Sleep, tracked the sleeping and eating patterns of 225 people and found that on those nights when study subjects stayed up late, they ate an average of 553 more calories than on the nights when they went to sleep earlier.

Specifically, this eating behavior between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.—known as calorie grazing—accounts for about one quarter of the daily calorie allotment for an average middle-aged man or woman. Unfettered calorie grazing can result in an average weight gain in excess of 40 pounds per year. What’s more, as you may imagine, the foods that these study participants reached for in the middle of the night were not fruits and vegetables, but treats packed with fat.

The Exception

What about teenagers at a sleepover party stuffing themselves with snacks? They’re the lucky ones. When teens hit their growth spurts between ages 13 and 18, it’s almost impossible for them to consume enough calories. Since their situation is unique, bedtime snacks may be permissible. But not for overweight teens.


  • With rare exceptions, try to wind down your food consumption three hours before bedtime. This will give your liver a chance to vacuum out your bloodstream before the next morning. A good idea is to stop eating after 10 p.m. at the very latest—no stuffing of foodstuffs around midnight.
  • Sleep-promoting foods. Foods containing lots of the amino acid tryptophan have been shown to promote drowsiness. Tryptophan can be converted to serotonin and melatonin, two neurotransmitters in the brain that help promote sleep. Good sources of tryptophan include egg whites, chia seeds, soy nuts, healthful spinach, fresh turkey, and low-fat milk. A 200-calorie snack before bedtime consisting of a 12-ounce glass of milk or half a turkey sandwich should do the trick.
  • Cut the caffeine! Because caffeine remains in your system for up to eight hours, you should abstain from caffeine-containing beverages after 3 p.m. As little as 12 ounces of coffee, or a liter of caffeinated soda, can have the same pharmaceutical effects as half of a NoDoz tablet. This means no caffeinated colas or coffee drinks in the late afternoon.
  • Avoid tyramine. Certain foods, such as those that contain high levels of tyramine, can interfere with sleep. Tyramine is a protein-related chemical derived from the amino acid tyrosine that’s involved in regulating blood pressure. It can keep you awake for one or two hours. Tyramine is found in aged cheese, processed meats, pickled fish, sauerkraut, and even soy sauce.
  • Opt for low-fat dinners. High-fat foods can take a long time to empty from your stomach, which can keep you from falling asleep comfortably.

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