You get home late from work, happy hour, or the gym and scarf down dinner...only to hop in bed less than an hour later. Been there? You're definitely not alone.
Yet, you probably hear all the time that it’s not the *best* idea to eat right before you go to sleep. But why? And exactly what health issues can late-night suppers cause? Women’s Health advisor Amanda Baker Lemein, RD, breaks down everything you need to know about whether or not it's really that bad of a habit to eat before bed—and busts a few common misconceptions about the effects of nighttime noshing.
First, it's helpful to have a sense of how digestion works.
Before you can understand how going to bed right after you eat affects the body and your bodily systems, you have to understand the timeline of what happens to food after you consume it.
As you know, it all starts in the mouth: When you eat your food, you break it down and soften it via chewing and your body's release of digestive enzymes. Then, as food moves to the stomach and further down into the gastrointestinal tract and the small and large intestines, more enzymes help break down your meal. Some food molecules get absorbed into the body, while the rest are packaged up as waste to pass through the colon.
Now you're wondering, does posting up horizontally with Netflix immediately after dinner mess with that sequence of events? The good news is, probably not. “Eating right before bed will likely not slow this process down,” says Lemein. “It’s an autonomic function, meaning digestion doesn’t require us to be awake or aware that our body is doing this.”
So if I won't necessarily mess with my body's ability to digest my food, what's the harm?
You know that lying down position? While it likely won't interfere with your body's ability to actually complete the digestion process after you eat, it can make it easier for some digestive juices to travel up to your esophagus, says Lemein. When stomach acid backs up into the oesophagus, that's when you get heart burn or acid reflux.
You can avoid having heartburn issues at nighttime by sitting up in bed for a bit after eating before you get too comfortable (and horizontal). Try propping yourself up with some pillows and reading for 15 minutes to give your body some time to get the digestion process underway. If you’re not totally wiped, moving around is an even better way to aid digestion; Lemein recommends a simple activity like tidying up around your home before you sit down on the couch or cozy up in the sack.
In addition, heartburn and indigestion can make you restless and cause you to wake up in the middle of the night. The more often heartburn interrupts your slumber, the worse sleep you'll get overall (which obviously isn't good for your overall health, since chronic sleep deprivation is connected to a slew of health issues).
Again, spending some time upright before you turn in for the night can help remedy this, as can widening the gap between your dinnertime and your bedtime.
Okay, but what about weight gain?
People have claimed that eating right before bed can pack on the pounds because the body doesn't need that energy from food while you're passed out, so it doesn't burn the calories and instead stores them. But hang on there: This is one of those diet tales that needs to disappear.
Studies on this topic show mixed results, and some even suggest eating a snack before bed can help you feel more satiated and eat fewer calories overall. But there's really no convincing data to prove that eating shortly before bed is a significant factor in weight gain (or weight loss for that matter).
Your eating schedule is incredibly individual and sometimes out of your control, so it's not worth dwelling on when you're eating as much as what you're eating. “Weight gain could potentially be impacted by eating before bed, but ultimately, this is due to an overall excess of calories throughout the entire day, not just right before bed,” says Lemein. So don’t stress if you occasionally need to eat dinner late.
If you’re not experiencing any noticeable negative side effects (i.e. indigestion) of eating-then-snoozing, Lemein says it’s not a big deal. “In terms of weight gain and health, the time of day when you eat is much less important than the overall quality and quantity of food consumed throughout the entire day,” she explains.
The bottom line: If you’re a night owl or your schedule forces you to eat late, don’t get so caught up in the timing of your last meal, and focus more on what you can control: eating a colourful, balanced diet and stopping when you’re full.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US.