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How Unhealthy Eating at Night May Affect You the Next Day

People who say they eat badly at night report being less helpful the next day.

Key points

  • Unhealthy eating at night was linked to physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches the next day.
  • Unhealthy eating was also associated with less engagement at work and less willingness to help coworkers.
  • Healthy eating habits include having regular meals, eating slowly, and consuming healthy fats.
Karolina Grabowska/Pixabay
Source: Karolina Grabowska/Pixabay

Doesn't that salad look good? Even so, it’s easy to fall into the habit of eating ice cream or potato chips while watching TV and playing video games to relax at night.

Missing sleep can definitely make you grumpy and less productive when you get to work the next day. But what about that night-time binge?

Unhealthy Eating May Lower Mood and Productivity

To answer that question, researchers at North Carolina State University recruited 97 full-time employees to answer questions for 10 consecutive workdays before work, at the end of the workday, and before bed.

For example, employees reported before bed about whether they felt they’d overeaten that evening, ate too much junk food, or ate too late. All of those counted as “unhealthy eating behavior”—though the participants decided themselves how much was too much.

When the volunteers fell into unhealthy eating behavior (in their own opinion), they were more likely to report headaches, stomachaches, and diarrhea the next morning, or feel guilty or ashamed about their eating.

During the workday, those morning reactions corresponded with an increased likelihood that they’d avoid tasks or work meetings or socializing, and a lower likelihood of helping coworkers.

The bottom line: Unhealthy eating at night isn’t just a problem for your waistline, it may affect mood and work performance.

The more emotionally stable the participants, the less effect unhealthy eating appeared to have on their health or mood and workplace activity.

The researchers did not tease out whether the volunteers were also drinking at night, whether sugar or caffeine made a difference, and what people ate during the workday.

So if you want to be a happy camper on the job, healthy eating habits might help.

How to Build Healthy Eating Habits

Make sure your diet nourishes a healthy gut . Your gut is home to an entire ecosystem of bacteria and there's evidence that it affects your eating habits. In fact, customized doses of probiotics may one day be able to restore your balance, research suggests. Don't gorge on kombucha or yogurt, especially if you have a delicate digestive system or irritable bowel syndrome. The safest bet is to eat plenty of prebiotics, high-fiber foods that feed the beneficial bacteria: onions, garlic, leeks, soybeans, chicory root, honey, banana, and Jerusalem artichoke. Eat a variety of vegetables rather than loading up on favorites.

Eat regular meals. Skipping meals probably isn't a good idea. Experiment, and see whether eating breakfast helps you avoid eating at midnight. If you’re hungry but put off meals, you could easily end up overeating later in the day.

The Institute for the Psychology of Eating, which organizes retreats and trains mind-body eating coaches, teaches clients to pay close attention to body cues. Are you hungry? Hunger can trigger a rumble or a feeling of lightness in the belly. You might get a headache or your head may feel heavy. Ignoring your hunger will backfire. Stop when you’re full. That sounds simple but many of us don’t pay attention. We eat for other reasons: we’re bored, the food is a treat, or it’s too hard to stop.

Slight fullness feels good, and you’ll be clear-headed and energized. Being overly full is uncomfortable.

Eat good fats like olive oil and avocados that will keep you full during the day. Snack on nuts or nut butter on a piece of celery. Add flaxseeds or chia seeds to a grain-like oatmeal.

Slow down when you eat . Appreciate each bite. This makes it easier to feel when you’re full and you’ll be more relaxed and enjoy your meal more while eating less. It’s especially important to slow your eating at night, when you’re often trying to defuse stress from the day. Think about lighting candles and dimming overhead lights at every dinner. Breathe deeply and observe whether your appetite declines.

Night-time eating is often a way to comfort ourselves. There may be challenges you’d be better off facing directly. If you slow down, a solution may come to mind or you may notice a feeling you had pushed aside.

Find allies. How we eat is often based on the eating of the other people in our lives. We all eat more when at large gatherings, for example. It’s harder to skip ice cream at night if your husband is filling his bowl.

Your family may not join you if you decide to conquer night-time eating and it can be helpful to find allies. Overeaters Anonymous (OA) describes itself as “a community of people who support each other in order to recover from compulsive eating and food behaviors. We welcome everyone who feels they have a problem with food.” From the first meeting in 1960, it has grown to about 7,000 meetings in more than 80 countries. A friend of mine who has been active in OA for several years says she's "seen absolute miracles" from the program. She credits its focus to a "Higher power," which you can define as you wish.

Note that the program isn’t focused on obesity or diet or weight but on compulsive eating. If you are always thinking about food, or can’t stop eating certain foods, food may be a problem for you even if your weight is in an appropriate range. If food is your main reward or comfort in a stressful time—or your main source of fun in dull times—thinking about how you can change that situation could bring great rewards, comfort, and fun.

A version of this story also appears on Your Care Everywhere.