Researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago recruited 52 young and middle-aged adults.
Study participants wore sensors around their wrist that recorded movement and sleep times throughout the day for seven days.
They kept food diaries to track what, when, and how much they were eating.
Night owls tended to be late sleepers, with a midpoint of sleep that was after 5:30 a.m.
Late sleepers typically logged less sleep than normal sleepers. They also started their days later, a pattern that pushed back mealtimes throughout the day.
Additionally, they had higher BMIs than normal sleepers, ate more calories after 8 p.m., and ate fewer fruits and vegetables.
Researchers took into account factors that are known to increase the risk of weight gain, like age, sleep duration, and sleep timing.
“After we adjusted for all of those things, the one major thing that remained positive, that remained correlated, was eating after 8 p.m.,” says study researcher Phyllis Zee, MD, associate director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology and a professor at Northwestern University’s Institute for Neuroscience in Chicago.
“Although those late sleepers were eating more calories, the number of calories between the normal sleepers and the late sleepers was not significantly different,” Zee tells WebMD.
The study was presented at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society in Minneapolis.
Advice for Dieters
“Many of our patients struggle with night eating,” says Elisabetta Politi, RD, nutrition director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C.
People who have trouble sleeping go for longer stretches of time between their dinnertime and their bedtime than people who sleep well. That often means they get hungry late at night. When they eat late, they’re not as hungry for breakfast in the morning.
“It creates a vicious cycle that I really feel promotes weight gain,” says Politi, who was not involved in the research.
Still, she says, there are many unanswered questions about why late eating may lead to weight gain.
In some European countries, for example, it is customary to eat dinner at later hours, which doesn’t seem to contribute to higher rates of obesity in those countries.