It's a widely held belief among health-conscious people that late-night eating is bad for you, but why? The two main reasons people avoid late-night snacks are fear of weight gain and sleeplessness.
There are mixed opinions in the health community about the best ways to snack, especially if you're looking to promote sleep or prevent weight gain. Does a magical cut-off time exist that bans you from eating during the night? Is going to bed hungry worse than eating a snack?
The truth is that ultimately, the optimal time to eat your last bite really is a personal preference—what really makes the difference for sleep and health purposes is what you are eating.
What you eat during the day can also affect the quality of your sleep. I recommend avoiding too much protein at dinner or in your evening snack. Protein actually stimulates alertness and takes more time to digest, which could keep you up. It's better to have your largest meal in the most active part of your day—for many of us that's lunch.
While you shouldn't spend an evening in front of the TV mindlessly munching on potato chips, you can include an evening snack in your diet. If you're hungry, having a healthy wholesome snack before bed will help you to relax and fall asleep.
Sleep is integral to your health, and not getting enough sleep may prevent weight loss.
Even if you're on a weight loss plan, late-night eating may not always be bad. Keeping your snacks at about 200 to 300 calories may fit into your plan, depending on your size and gender.
Poor late-night snack choices involve any snacks that are hard to digest and will therefore disturb your sleep. These include foods that are very spicy, high in fat, and high in fiber (e.g., beans and high-fiber cereals).
Caffeine, chocolate, and alcoholic beverages also disturb your sleep. Contrary to popular belief, although alcohol may make you sleepy, it ultimately causes sleep disturbances in the middle of the night.
Foods that will encourage production of sleep and calm-inducing serotonin and melatonin are better later-night snack choices:
1. High tryptophan foods lead to relaxation and promote sleepiness.
These include beans, lentils, soybeans, nuts (especially walnuts and cashews), spinach, whole grains, and poultry.
2. High melatonin foods promote sleep.
These include tart cherries, cherry juice, and oats.
3. High vitamin B6 foods stimulate the production of sleep hormones.
These include lean meat, fish, pistachios, apricots, raisins, spinach, bell peppers, fortified cereals, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, turnip greens, and sweet potatoes.
4. High potassium and magnesium foods relax muscles for better sleep.
Whole grains, nuts and seeds, and dark green leafy vegetables are high in magnesium. Bananas, oranges, potatoes, apricots, yogurt, and milk are good sources of potassium.
Overall, a good late-night snack should include carbs, which will help you sleep, and a little bit of protein, which will help build muscle and keep you feeling full.
Here are some of my favorite snack combos:
- Nut butter and whole-grain crackers
- Plain Greek yogurt and fresh fruit
- Popcorn (2 to 3 cups) and some cubes of cheese
- A small veggie omelet with whole-grain toast
- Cottage cheese and fruit
- Whole-grain flatbread and hummus
- Turkey and tomato sandwich
- Banana or apple with a spread of almond or cashew butter
- A tuna salad slider
- Greek yogurt–based dip with veggies
- Dried tart cherries with almonds and cashews