How a late-night snack can affect your gut health

Woman snacking late at night as experts reveal the gut health risks. (Getty Images)
Experts have warned about the gut health risks of snacking late at night. (Getty Images) (SimpleImages via Getty Images)

Whether it's a bar of choc before bed or a sneaky bowl of cereal before you snooze, us Brits love a late-night snack, so much so that almost half of us admit to getting out of bed for a midnight munch.

New research, by MyFitnessPal, has found that 45% throw back the duvet to creep to the kitchen for a nocturnal nosh, even though they've already had their evening meal and brushed their teeth.

Of course, when the urge to snack hits, the cravings are hard to resist, but turns out late-night snacking can be a vicious cycle with four in ten (40%) saying they struggle to get back to sleep following a bed-time binge, with a quarter (25%) feeling exhausted and even hungrier the next day.

Experts warn that disrupted sleep patterns can lead to increased appetite and sugar cravings, which in turn leave us feeling even more tired and ravenous.

"Poor sleep disrupts the balance of ghrelin and leptin, the hormones responsible for regulating appetite and satiety," MyFitnessPal’s UK nutritional expert, Amanda Hamilton explains.

"This imbalance can lead to increased hunger and decreased feelings of fullness. Simply put, if you don’t sleep well, you are more likely to eat more throughout the following day and feel less satisfied."

Topping the list of midnight snacks Brits like to tuck into was cheese (28%), followed by milk chocolate (26%) and packets of crisps (21%).

Over a fifth (21%) tuck into cold pizza, while bowls of cereal (12%) and leftover takeaway food heated in the microwave are also popular foods Brits love to chow down on late at night.

Woman snacking in front of the refrigerator in the kitchen late night. (Getty images)
Almost half of Brits admit to snacking late at night. (Getty Images) (domoyega via Getty Images)

More than one in ten (12%) have eaten peanut butter straight from the jar, while one in ten (10%) like to rustle up toast, with 45% getting an attack of the guilt for giving in to their late-night cravings.

Cake (9%) and ice cream (8%) emerged as food-hungry Brits crave late at night, while 12% admit to making sandwiches as late as midnight.

Interestingly, the research, also found that Brits are eating their evening meal later, with 57% not sitting down until 9pm.

Getting home late (57%) and being too busy and stressed to eat earlier (21%) are the main reasons for eating so late.

But what impact is all this late-night snacking having on our bodies?

A study from 2022 found that eating late at night can increase how hungry you are when you’re awake and decrease how quickly your body uses energy, also during awake hours. It also showed that late-night eating can change the way body fat tissue works, making it more likely to store fatty compounds (lipids).

A further study that eating too late a night can disrupt your body’s circadian rhythms. Your circadian rhythm is your internal body clock which tells you when to sleep by responding to daylight.

The disruption of these rhythms can change the rate at which you use energy, therefore leading to an increased risk of weight gain.

Man snacking at night. (Getty Images)
Some late night snacks are healthier than others. (Getty Images) (Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman via Getty Images)

Gut health impact of late-night snacking

Eating late at night doesn’t just impact on sleep quality, it can have a negative impact on gut function too.

"The stomach needs up to three hours to empty, so if you eat too close to bedtime undigested food can begin to ferment and over time this can lead to an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine," Hamilton explains.

"This overgrowth is known as SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), and is associated with bloating and other IBS symptoms."

According to a 2020 study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, late-night snacking could lead to gastrointestinal discomfort during sleep, such as indigestion, heartburn and acid reflux.

While further research is needed, study authors concluded that meal timing pre-bed appears to be a modifiable risk factor for nocturnal awakenings and disrupted sleep.

Next time you're standing in front of the fridge perusing your snack options, experts recommend choosing nutritious foods low in added sugars and saturated fats and reaching for snacks rich in protein and fibre to help you feel full and stop overeating.

"If late night hunger is going to keep you awake, it’s still better to eat something, but keep it easy to digest," Hamilton explains.

"Yoghurt and a few berries, a hot drink, or some warm porridge with a little nut butter are all good options," she adds.

Gut health: Read more

Watch: Healthy snacking: An easy guide