You know the drill. It’s 9 or 10 p.m. and you’re just sitting there minding your business when the late-night cravings hit. You just need a little something, but all that news about the dangers of eating in the evening or having a snack before bed may blanket you in guilt. And although the guilt is often pushed aside for a trip to the fridge, it does beg the question: Is snacking before bed all that big of a deal?
First things first: We all need to eat to survive. And while everybody’s caloric requirements are different based on their size; body composition; activity levels; lifestyle; and goals, at the end of the day, each of us needs some gas in the tank to keep going. And calories are that gas. So, does it really matter when you eat them?
Yes and no. Eating a big meal right before bed, even if you’re under your daily required caloric intake, can make it harder to fall asleep. After all, your body needs to activate to digest food and absorb nutrients. In fact, those of you who are prone to eat a big meal before bed and wonder why you can’t sleep, may just need to push the steak and potatoes forward a few hours. Of course, what you’re eating before bed can also make a difference. Some foods will lead to trouble sleeping, while others can set you up for sound sleep and sweet dreams.
How to Manage Late-Night Cravings
For those of you who want to cut snacking out completely, there are a couple of things you can try.
1. Eat More at Mealtimes
There is scientific research supporting that people eat about a quarter of their daily calories in the form of snacks, so boosting meal frequency or size may help limit overall snacking—especially at night. To make sure you’re eating enough during the day, it might make sense to journal your food intake through an app like My Fitness Pal or in a handwritten log. I prefer My Fitness Pal because it helps you track macronutrients, too.
2. Stay Hydrated
Thirst is often mistaken for hunger. In fact, it’s highly deceptive. All you may need at night is a glass of water, tea, or warm milk. Making sure you drink water throughout the day is a great way to battle hunger, limit snacking, and avoid weight gain from overeating. Sip water during the day and pay attention to the color of your urine—when it’s clear, you’re adequately hydrated.
What Happens to Your Body When You Eat at Night?
As mentioned, the biggest danger to your body when snacking before bed is sleep deprivation—and if you’re eating well over your daily calorie requirement, you’ll gain weight, too. So, making the right picks for food becomes more important than whether or not you eat.
Ideally, you want to stick to items that are relatively easy to digest and absorb. These tend to be items like fruit, vegetables, nuts, whey protein, and low-fat dairy. That said, dairy can be tough for some people to digest, so if you decide to have a yogurt or cottage cheese, you’ll want to be up for about an hour before bed.
It’s also important to keep in mind that being upright after eating can prevent heartburn. When you’re lying down (in a supine position) it’s easy for stomach acid to creep up into your esophagus, which is even more likely if you’re eating fatty, greasy processed foods.
How Much Can You Eat Before Bed?
Now, it really doesn’t matter how much you eat before bed—you won’t gain weight if you’re not over your daily caloric needs (I feel compelled to re-iterate this important fact)—but the bigger the meal, the more your body has to work to break down, digest, and absorb the food. Therefore, it makes sense for these snacks to top out at around 300 calories.
And just like what you eat during the day, the sources of calories matter. Eating a cheeseburger, ice cream, or bowl of chips before bed is not as smart, or healthy, as having some fruit, yogurt, nuts, or even fiber-rich air popped popcorn.
What Are the Best Foods to Eat Before Bed?
Unsurprisingly, the best foods to eat before bed are the best ones you should eat during the day. Nutritionists and dietitians alike agree on the following:
- whole grains
- fat-free dairy
These are all high in nutrition and relatively low in calories, and can keep a healthy bedtime snack from causing too much trouble to your sleep cycle.
There are also some health foods that may even add a bit of assistance to help you catch some Z’s. A very small study indicated that tart cherry juice helped chronic insomniacs improve sleep quality and duration, so maybe some cherries can be helpful. It’s believed they offer therapy because of their melatonin content.
Of course, some lean proteins like chicken breast, steak, and fish that are healthy to eat during the day, and even for dinner, might not be the best items for your late-night cravings. This is because your body has to work a little harder to digest them. It’s not uncommon, however, for highly active people looking to build muscle—like bodybuilders—to eat chicken, steak, or fish about an hour before bed.
If you want a protein-rich bedtime snack, egg whites, yogurt, cottage cheese, or whey protein might do the trick. Adding a tablespoon of peanut or almond butter to the cottage cheese or protein can make it a little more nutritious!
And if you’re craving something crunchy and salty, some air-popped popcorn may help. Two cups is rich in fiber and low in calories—just make sure it’s not doused in butter!
What Are The Worst Foods to Eat Before Bed?
The foods you don’t want to eat before bed are almost exactly what you’d expect.
- Refined foods
- Processed foods
- Greasy foods
- Foods high in saturated fat
These items are more likely to fire up the stomach acid and lead to heartburn, while the fats in some of these items can be very difficult for your body to break down.
Eating cheesecake, French fries, or pizza before bed can also pile on useless calories whole providing virtually no nutrition. And because of the way your body will use the majority of the calories in these items, they are likely to lead to fat gain even if you’re in a caloric deficit for the day.
Oh, and if you like to have a glass of wine or nightcap before bed, best stay away. Alcohol inhibits your ability to have quality sleep when consumed close to bed time, while promoting heartburn.
Use your late-night cravings as an opportunity to pad your nutritional stats with some good quality food!
Rabin, R., “What Are the Best Snacks Before Bedtime?” New York Times, March 17, 2017; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/17/well/eat/what-are-the-best-snacks-before-bedtime.html?_r=0, last accessed March 29, 2017.
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Pigeon, W., “Effects of a Tart Cherry Juice Beverage on the Sleep of Older Adults with Insomnia: A Pilot Study,” J Med Food. 2010 Jun; 13(3): 579–583. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2009.0096.
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