Weight loss by eating snacks late at night may be just a hype. An article published on Men’s Health by Michael Ormsbee, Ph.D., on May 2013 claimed that eating snacks late at night does not make people fat. It can actually increase metabolism, which could promote weight loss. Ormsbee, an assistant professor of exercise science at Florida State University (FSU), wrote that physically fit men who ate a “modest (150-calories) nighttime snack consisting of protein or carbohydrates” had a higher resting metabolic rate the next morning than when they ate nothing before bed. Ormsbee also wrote that eating before bed can lower hunger in the morning and “improve satiety between meals the next day.” Although the type of food eaten isn’t important, he stated that eating protein is “smart” because “it helps you build muscle.” The claims may seem like an adequate excuse for some people to indulge in their favorite snacks late at night, but the amount of evidence for weight loss and obesity prevention is minimal at best.
Weight loss claim may be exaggerated
The claim that late night snacking does not make people gain weight is based on a FSU study that was published in the June 2013 issue of The British Journal of Nutrition. In this randomized, double-blind study, 11 fit, college-age men were placed in one of three groups that consumed a different type of nutrient before bed: Whey protein, casein protein, carbohydrate, and a placebo that yielded no energy. What the researchers found is that those who consumed either protein or carbohydrate had a higher resting metabolic rate (RMR) than those who took the placebo. They concluded that night-time consumption of protein or carbohydrates “elicits favourable effects” on satiety the next morning than the placebo group. However, this study with a tiny sample population does not automatically correlate weight loss or satiety with late-night snacking nor does it apply to women, older adults, or those who are ill or are on medications.
Ormsbee wrote that consuming casein protein before bed “increase protein synthesis in men.” Based on a Dutch pilot study, which was published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise in 2012, 16 healthy, young men who participated in the study showed that “protein ingested immediately before sleep is effectively digested and absorbed.” Like the previous study, however, the tiny sample population and demographic does not necessarily represent the general population.
Weight loss, protein synthesis, and increased metabolism may work among healthy, fit males, but some studies showed otherwise among overweight or obese men and women. In 2012, Ormsbee and his colleagues conducted a study that examined if different macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) and exercise training had any effect on RMR, satiety, appetite, and body composition before bedtime. Among the 59 participants, in which 11 had dropped out of the four-week study, researchers found no changes in RMR and other factors with protein type or macronutrient intake in the late evening.
Look at the bigger picture
The cause of weight gain or weight loss isn’t just about munching on snacks late at night or what type of nutrients are consumed. For many years, nutrition and obesity experts have recognized that late-night snacking is more common in obese and overweight people than those with normal weight. Sometimes the habit can develop into a disorder called “night eating syndrome,” which is characterized by late-nite eating, depression, distress, and insomnia, according to Obesity Reviews. However, night eating syndrome doesn’t always lead to weight gain, but certain individuals may be more “susceptible to night-eating-related weight gain.” Genetics may also play a role, particular those that affect the circadian cycle of sleep and eating.
A review published in Handbook of Nutrition, Diet, and Sleep stated that the behavior of hyperphagia in night eating syndrome may be from an interaction of “genetic and environmental processes” that causes and maintains the disorder. It does mention that “lifestyle modifications aimed at weight loss” should be targeted rather than just focusing on late-night snacking. More research is needed to “optimize the protocols.”
Sleep quality and weight gain
Sleeping disorders may also contribute to whether certain individuals can lose or gain weight, not just protein consumption or late-night snacking. A study among 330 people published on April 4, 2014 in Eating Behaviors showed that those who have worse sleep quality are more likely to have higher risks of obesity than those who get adequate sleep. The lack of sleep can trigger overweight and obese people binge-eat, which may indicate that the act of eating itself — not obesity or weight gain — is the cause of sleep deficits in overweight and obese people.
With so many factors that contribute to weight loss or weight gain, there isn’t a single, one-size-fits-all answer to deal with weight problems, and eating snacks late at night is not a solution nor is it advisable. It may work for most healthy, college men who are active, but for everyone else, it may not work so well. Until further studies can support Ormsbee’s claim on late-night eating, snacking on ice-cream or protein shakes while watching Late Night With Jimmy Fallon before bed may not be such a wise idea.
By Nick Ng
The British Journal of Nutrition
Florida State University
Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine
Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise
The Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology
Handbook of Nutrition, Diet, and Sleep