Late-Night Snacks and Heart Attacks


Resident Science buff Farouq Manji looks at the debates on whether late-night eating is detrimental to one’s health.A QUICK POLL of Irish families would indicate that there is substantial variation among the supper times of most households. Even day-to-day eating schedules differ within families – and weekends are an entity unto themselves, where a 3pm Sunday dinner is not unusual.

fat-baby-mouse It is interesting then, to consider what effect different eating times have on the health of each family. A 2006 study from Oregon Health and Science University reported that an individual’s calorie intake alone was singly responsible in determining the person’s weight gain. According to the study, the time of consumption – how late the subject ate their main meal of the day – was not an important factor.

“Night eating increases the likelihood of sleeping problems and is also related to binge eating”

This study, however, was only based on sixteen female Rhesus monkeys, who had had their ovaries removed and whose eating habits were studied for one year. Though monkeys are considered an excellent model for human physiology, the size of the group, and the methodology of the study – strictly observing their natural eating habits and drawing conclusions – makes it difficult to readily accept the conclusions of this study.

Before you tuck into your routine post-pub indulgence, it would be wise to consider several studies released in recent years. A 2009 study published in Obesity, examining various sets of Swedish twins – where only one twin was obese – indicated that rates of night eating, defined as consuming more than a quarter of one’s caloric intake at night, are roughly double in the clinically obese. Additionally, night eating increases the likelihood of sleeping problems and is also related to binge-eating.

Another study, published by the Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology in Illinois, has drawn the conclusion that circadian rhythms – your ‘body clock’ – play an important role in weight management. Nocturnal mice were fed only during daylight hours, when they should be sleeping, and then compared to mice who were fed during normal waking hours. The caloric intake and activity of all mice were the same – but the mice fed during sleeping hours gained significantly more weight.

Although the latest study was exclusively carried out on mice (and therefore, the closest evolutionary relative to a UCD Fresher), the general principles applied within the study are translatable to human physiology.

Circadian rhythms are the natural, cyclic changes in your brain that regulate sleep, hunger, hormone release (and therefore sexual drive) and also regulate the metabolic activities of the body. It is not inconceivable that caloric intake at times of varied metabolic activity could influence the way calories are utilized.

It is important to note however, that extra eating at night is undoubtedly unhealthy. Additional night-time calories, for instance after a solid supper and a few beers, is obviously destined to end up as extra weight. The debate rumbles on, however, whether or not routinely late evening meals are detrimental to one’s health.