Listen, I love slurping ramen at midnight and popping dusty Doritos after dinner as much as the next person. But I could never quite shake my mom's admonitions about late-night eating from my conscience. Back when I still lived under her roof and didn't have full access to the pantry, she'd give me one of her finger-wagging lectures warning against "ramen face"—a term that Koreans have long used to refer to a bloated visage—come morning. Nowadays, when I do defiantly cave in to my late-night munchies, I find that eating any meal—especially one buffed with sodium—indeed makes me look...puffier.
So I decided to turn to the trusty experts for backup. If you thought the only side effect of your midnight munchies was the extra calories it added to your daily intake, I have some bad news for you. According to Jason Emer, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, indulging in midnight snacking or untimely eating doesn't just contribute to face bloating, it could also make you more prone to skin aging, skin damage, and even skin cancer (sigh).
"Heavy meals before bedtime can weaken the enzyme that protects skin from UV sun damage." explains Stuart Kaplan, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and luxury skincare brand KAPLAN MD. This was supported by a study conducted by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; scientists found that abnormal eating habits disrupted the biological clock of mice's skin, leading to a weakening of the potency of a skin enzyme that blocks the sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation.
Although it's important to keep in mind that these tests were done on mice and not humans, it still does bring to light a very compelling argument against late-night eating. "In addition to the UV factor, it's proven that eating before bed (especially anything sugary) can spike blood sugar levels and create inflammation, worsening conditions such as acne and eczema," says Dr. Emer.
So when is the latest you can eat? "It depends on what you are eating," says Dr. Kaplan. "The heavier the meal, the longer you should wait before going to bed. At a minimum, I recommend at least two hours, which is how long your body needs to digest most of the food. You should never go to bed bloated and full."
Although dermatologists say it's best to refrain from snacking late in general, Dr. Emer warns that certain foods can worsen skin side effects, including redness and acne. The worst culprits: dairy products, chocolate (sorry guys), fried foods, and anything with a high glycemic index, which has been shown to increase oil production during the night and contribute to breakouts. Eating salty foods can also cause our bodies to retain water, as it tries to make up for the added salt and even out the tonicity in our system, says Renée Rouleau, a celebrity esthetician in New York City. (This is what causes the dreaded "ramen face effect.")
If you absolutely must snack, dermatologists say to stick to organic and unprocessed foods, like antioxidant-rich fruits (Dr. Emer specifically recommends yellow and orange ones because the color from their antioxidant beta-carotene converts to vitamin A in the body), leafy vegetables, and whole-wheat bread.
So is it worth sacrificing your skin for a quick meal? As a late-night muncher myself, maybe. All this to say, regardless of when or what you eat, be sure to follow up with some good skincare—plus facial rolling and oil control if needed—the next morning, starting with a hefty dose of sunscreen.