You made it! It’s 10 pm and the kids are in bed, dishes are done, and you even managed to bake two dozen cupcakes for the school bake sale. Now you’re starving and that bowl of leftover frosting is calling your name! You’ve done well all day – but no matter how many fruits and vegetables you eat, you can’t curb those late-night cravings.
Don’t stress! We’ve all been there.
As a Holistic Nutritionist, one of the most common questions I get is about healthy eating choices at night. Is snacking at night going pack on the pounds? Are there any foods that can help you sleep?
Just like everything else in life – it all comes down to balance. It turns out that eating a nighttime snack may not be as evil as everyone thinks, as long as your midnight snack doesn’t turn into a midnight buffet.
See what science has to say, or if you’re super hungry, go ahead and check out our round up of the 17 best healthy late-night snacks!
You’ve likely heard that your brain has an internal clock known as the circadian rhythm which helps to regulate your sleep-wake cycle. But did you know that almost every organ in your body also has an internal clock that controls its daily activities too? The stomach is the main organ we tend to associate with digestion, but it’s only one of many players when it comes to the digestive process.
Your body needs a constant supply of energy to be able to function, and the main source is glucose. As you go about your day, your body is burning through glucose constantly for nerve impulses, muscle contractions, and to regulate your body temperature. Overnight, your energy expenditure drops, so your digestive system slows to a crawl.
During the day, your mouth produces saliva that contains enzymes to breakdown the food that you eat. At night, the amount of saliva dramatically diminishes and stomach acid secretion significantly drops too. Even the pancreas slows down the production of the hormone insulin responsible for regulating blood sugar.
The intestines are commonly referred to as “the gut” and measure over 28 feet long. This is the primary place for actual digestion and nutrient absorption, but even your gut operates on a daily clock. Some of the latest research on the trillions of bacteria that make up your microbiome has found that it also operates on a rhythm that impacts immune and metabolic health.
Does this mean that your body halts digestion the moment you fall asleep, leaving that steak you ate for dinner floating around until morning? The answer is yes – and no. While the digestive process does slow down at night, it doesn’t stop completely.
Most of the advice on avoiding eating late at night is because sleeping puts your body in an inactive state, preventing enzymes and stomach acids from converting food into energy. Your body also relies on gravity to help the process of digestion happen smoothly. Some of the telltale signs of an inability to digest foods (aka ‘indigestion’) are bloating, heartburn, and acid reflux.
Chances are you’ve had the midnight munchies at some point in your life. Do you eat salads and apples all day long only to transform into a ravenous creature, consuming an entire pint of rocky road after twilight? Why is it that cravings for sweet and salty snacks seem to skyrocket when the sun goes down?
According to science, your circadian rhythm may be to blame! A study published in the journal Obesity found that the body’s internal clock increases hunger and cravings in the evenings, usually for foods that are higher in salt and starch. While our hunter and gatherer ancestors may have benefitted from one large nightly nosh after a long period of daily fasting, we do not.
In the study, 12 healthy adults were kept in a dimly lit environment for a 13-day period and had activities like meals and sleep evenly scheduled. Across the board, individuals were least hungry in the morning and most hungry in the evening, an internal mechanism that promotes efficient nutrient storage for times when food is scarce. The problem is, in our present society – food is plentiful, readily available, and calorically dense.
Thanks to artificial light, it is easy to stay up late into the evening and skimp out on sleep. But being awake when our sugar cravings are peaking may lead us to eat some of the very foods we usually avoid, and more of them.
Another reason that your cravings may be worse in the evening hours could be because you skimped out on food all day. If you frequently skip breakfast, eat a handful of nuts at your desk for lunch, and sit down for your first real meal of the day at dinner, your body will be screaming for calories around 9 pm. Fueling your body with small, healthy meals throughout the day may prevent the desire to feast on chips and chocolate before bed.
Have you ever found yourself secretly eating large amounts of food at night, even though you weren’t really hungry to begin with? Did you feel guilty afterward, only to repeat it again the following night? This type of behavior could be a sign of a serious condition that affects more than 1.5% of the population.
Night eating syndrome (NES) is a type of eating disorder that was originally described in 1955 and is now part of the DSM-5 list of feeding and eating disorders. While this condition does occur more commonly in individuals who are obese or overweight, this isn’t always the case. Night eating syndrome is characterized by the following behaviors:
Night Eating Syndrome
There are multiple factors that may contribute to the development of night eating syndrome, some physical and some emotional. Genetics, problems with the sleep-wake cycle, and abnormal hormone levels are all believed to play a role. Obesity and a history of mental health issues or substance abuse may increase the likelihood of developing NES as well.
Just like most other eating disorders, treatment for night eating syndrome includes a combination of therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, nutritional support, and strategies aimed at changing beliefs around eating and sleep.
If having a glass of milk with a warm cookie has been part of your bedtime routine since you learned to talk, it may be hard to fathom making a change. If you sat down with a panel of experts including nutritionists, fitness advisors and sleep doctors, you’d likely hear a variety of opinions on whether or not you should eat before bed. Let’s look at both the pros and cons so you can decide for yourself.
Going to bed with some food in your stomach may help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, according to some research. Certain foods may help to induce sleep and could prevent you from waking up hungry in the night.
If you are prone to the midnight munchies, having a small, healthy snack after dinner may help to prevent cravings for sweet and salty foods later on.
Some new research suggests that protein before bed may increase muscle mass and resting metabolism in healthy, physically active individuals.
Similar to dieting, telling yourself you aren’t allowed to eat before bed could lead to a restriction mentality and feelings of deprivation. Not only can this lead to depression and anxiety, but it also contributes to binging and possibly weight gain over time.
Blame it on your Paleolithic ancestors, but you are much more likely to choose unhealthy foods that are higher in starch and sugar late at night. For some reason, carrot sticks with hummus is not as appealing as salt and vinegar chips are after sundown.
Our bodies work best if we eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper. Consuming most of your calories in the evening hours means you are more likely to wake up full, skip breakfast, and repeat the same unhealthy eating habits again the next day.
While that large slice of cheese pizza and spicy chicken wings may have tasted amazing going down, they certainly won’t feel that way at 3 am when your esophagus feels like it’s on fire. Eating large amounts of food before laying flat in bed is a recipe for the telltale symptoms of indigestion and heartburn.
Thanks to those increased cravings late at night, you are more likely to eat more calories than your body needs in the evening hours. Nighttime is also when most people reach for sugar-laden snacks that are calorically dense and could pack on the pounds.
If you decide that having a bedtime snack is right for you, it’s important to know which foods to choose. Keeping the snack healthy and around 150 calories appears to be the wisest choice. Certain foods may even improve your sleep by helping you to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
Proteins are the group of foods that contain amino acids, necessary for building muscle, hormones, and neurotransmitters in the body. Certain hormones like melatonin and cortisol are involved in our sleep-wake cycle and many neurotransmitters also regulate activities like mood and sleep. Tryptophan is an example of an amino acid that is found in turkey and one that many people associate with that sleepy feeling after Thanksgiving dinner.
Proteins are also digested more slowly than carbohydrates, and unlike carbs, they don’t cause a spike in blood sugar. During the night, this is a good thing because it means that you won’t have that roller-coaster effect of increased blood glucose followed by a dip that could interrupt your sleep.
Combined with exercise, a high-protein snack before bed could also lead to greater muscle gains and a higher metabolism the next day. It may even help you wake up naturally in the morning. If you are trying to lose weight or improve your athletic performance, this could be a huge plus.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition has taken the stance that 30–40 g of casein protein prior to sleep can increase metabolism and muscle synthesis throughout the night.
Some of the best before-bed protein choices include:
Many fruits are rich in the hormone melatonin, which could help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. While fruit does technically contain sugar, most fruits are also high in fiber which prevents the blood sugar spike we see with many other foods. Fruits are also rich in antioxidants, compounds that may help to combat the oxidative stress that many sleep disorders bring.
If you’re anything like me and practically eat your weight in cherries during their limited season, you’ll be happy to know that this delicious fruit may help you sleep. Cherries (especially tart varieties and their juice) have been found to be rich in sleep-promoting melatonin, potassium, serotonin, and tryptophan. Multiple studies have shown that drinking tart cherry juice before sleep helps to improve symptoms of insomnia.
Kiwis are another fruit that researchers have looked at thanks to its sleep-inducing compounds. Kiwis are rich in magnesium, melatonin, calcium, and a variety of other elements that make them a great bed-time snack. One small study found that eating two kiwi fruits an hour before bed improved the ability to fall asleep, sleep length, and overall quality of rest.
If you need a little crunch before bed, reaching for veggies and some hummus may actually improve the quality of your sleep. A brand new study out of Stanford University looked at dietary patterns in 245 physicians and discovered that a plant-based diet was associated with less fatigue and sleep-related impairments than either a high protein or a high saturated fat and sugar diet.
Yogurt is one of those foods that people tend to love or hate. If you find yourself part of the former group, you may be in luck when it comes to sleep. Yogurt contains tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin and melatonin, but it also is rich in calcium and magnesium. These two minerals contribute to muscle relaxation, stress reduction, and stability of the nervous system.
Another reason yogurt may be such a great bedtime snack is that it contains less lactose than other dairy products and may help to improve digestive health. If heartburn and indigestion keep you up at night, this calcium-rich snack could flame the fire burning in your throat.
Yogurt also contains probiotics, which contribute to a healthy microbiome. Research on the role of gut health in regulating sleep is still in its infancy, but studies have found that the microbiome may play a much larger role in sleep than we previously thought.
If you do choose yogurt as a bedtime snack, be sure to look for unsweetened varieties that contain live probiotics. Sweetened yogurt may contain as much sugar as a candy bar, which could keep you up at night. Unsweetened Greek yogurt that is rich in protein is the best choice, topped with cinnamon, fruit, or nuts (try cherries or kiwi to enhance the sedative effects).
Just like there are a variety of foods that can help you sleep, there are also many foods that should be avoided before bed. Some choices like those containing caffeine may be more obvious, but others like alcohol are not.
While many people know to avoid chocolate, coffee, and tea in the evening, a nightcap has long been associated with helping people fall asleep. Alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, but it could disrupt your sleep cycle and impact REM sleep. Even just one single drink may be enough to harm sleep, according to the latest research.
Cravings for starchy snacks are highest in the evening hours, but carbohydrates break down into sugar. Not only can sugar cause your blood glucose levels to spike making you feel more alert, but it also sends you crashing later in the night and could disrupt your sleep.
Likewise, salty foods before bed will make you thirsty. Hydration is a great thing for your body, but not if it means waking multiple times in the night needing to pee. It’s best to limit beverages in the evening hours, taking small sips of water or herbal tea if you feel thirsty.
Certain foods may make you more likely to suffer from heartburn and indigestion. Spicy foods are at the top of the list, but acidic foods like tomatoes, oranges, and vinegar-based items are culprits too (bye-bye salt and vinegar chips).
Similar to spicy foods, eating a big meal before turning in for the night is probably not the best idea. When your stomach is full and you lay down flat, gravity is no longer working on your side. This makes it harder to digest your food and increases the likelihood that you’ll experience that dreaded heartburn and acid reflux.
If you’re looking for some inspiration for late-night snacks, check out these 17 healthy recipes. All of these delicious recipes were chosen because they contain sleep-promoting ingredients that are also easy on the waist-line.
This homemade trail mix recipe features multiple sleep-promoting ingredients including dried tart cherries, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, dried coconut, and dried banana chips. The combination of healthy Omega-3 rich fats and melatonin from the banana chips and dried cherries should keep you sleepy and satisfied until the morning.
Many people grew up drinking warm milk with honey before bed, but this grown-up version takes it one step further with the addition of slivered almonds. Unsweetened Greek yogurt is topped with just enough honey to satisfy your sweet tooth without sending your blood sugar soaring. The combination of healthy fats, protein, calcium, magnesium, and tryptophan should have you sleeping like a baby.
If you’ve never heard of a blondie, it is very similar to a brownie but without the chocolate (and caffeine) that could keep you up at night. This version is packed with protein-rich chickpeas, cashew butter, and lots of other tasty ingredients. These blondies are nutritious and delicious – as long as you eat just one!
This bedtime green smoothie is full of nutritious ingredients like spinach, rolled oats, chamomile tea, tart cherry juice, bananas, and almond butter to prevent a rumbling tummy overnight. With fiber, protein, and a silky-smooth finish, this calming smoothie should put those sheep to bed in no time.
You’ve likely experienced the turkey hangover after Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey has tryptophan, an amino acid that has calming properties. This recipe features lots of healthy ingredients and protein to keep you full and to help send you into dreamland.
If chips are your thing, you’ll love this recipe for oil-free baked veggie chips. Made with real vegetables like beets, zucchini, carrots, sweet potato, and turnips, these homemade chips are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and fiber to keep you full all night long. Unlike their traditional counterparts, these chips are low in calories but still have that satisfying crunch you’re craving.
You may be shocked to see ice cream on this list, but pistachios are full of magnesium, protein, and vitamin B6, all of which contribute to better sleep. This vegan recipe can be made in a blender, so you don’t need any complicated equipment. It even features avocado and is sweetened with dates, but don’t let those healthy ingredients fool you – this ice cream is loaded with flavor!
These delicious bedtime bites are an easy no-bake snack that you can make in minutes. With almond butter, oats, dried cherries, and dark chocolate, these bite-size treats are full of healthy ingredients that promote rest and relaxation while still satisfying your sweet tooth.
Some nights, nothing but pizza will do at 2 am. Unfortunately, heartburn from the tomato-based pizza sauce could keep you up a lot longer than you planned on. This yummy pizza is topped with kale-based pesto instead, with mozzarella cheese for the ooey-gooey goodness you’re likely craving.
If savory snacks are more your style, you may love these cucumber bites topped with smoked salmon and avocado. The combination of buttery avocado and salty salmon paired with crunchy cucumber creates an orchestra of textures and flavor in your mouth. Healthy fats and loads of protein make this an excellent pre-bed nosh.
This beet hummus with tart cherry topping not only looks amazing with its vibrant hue but this tasty treat is also loaded with ingredients that should have you sleepy in no time. Hummus is made from a base of protein-rich chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, and in this recipe – roasted beets. The crunchy topping adds texture and lots of omega-3s for a healthy body and mind.
Kiwis have calcium, magnesium, and melatonin, which make them a great option for a nighttime snack. The yogurt dip is made with Greek yogurt, which is high in protein and has many sleep-promoting elements too!
If you are looking for some bedtime snack ideas for your little ones, we’ve got you covered. These recipes are all full of ingredients that are calming and should help your kids fill the grumblies in their tummies before bed.
Most kids love popsicles, but they are often full of artificial ingredients and sugar that could keep them awake long past bedtime. These homemade popsicles feature protein-rich Greek yogurt, bananas, peanut butter, and just a few chocolate chips for fun (optional).
If you’ve never made fruit leather before, you may be surprised at how easy it is. This homemade version of fruit-roll-ups is made with just dried tart cherries, cherry juice, and a little honey. Loaded with melatonin, this fruit leather is a great pre-bed snack for children.
These white-night cookies feature a number of sleep-promoting ingredients like Greek yogurt, walnuts, flax seeds, dark cherries, and rolled oats. With spices like ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon that are reminiscent of gingerbread, kids will likely gobble up these insomnia cookies and be begging for seconds.
These delicious homemade gummy bears are made with just 5 ingredients and are full of calming magnesium, melatonin, and amino acids to help calm the nervous system. With no artificial colors or ingredients, these gummy bears are a tasty treat you can feel good about feeding your children.
Your little ones will likely fall in love with these homemade granola bars made with ingredients like oats, almonds, dried cherries, tahini, and chia seeds. With lots of crunch and a drizzle of dark chocolate for added sweetness, this recipe is sure to please.
If you’re anything like me, having a snack before bed is just part of your routine. Unfortunately, most snacks are full of sugar, salt, and other ingredients that are likely to keep you up way past your bedtime. Even worse, eating calorie-laden snacks before turning in is a sure-fire way to pack on the pounds you’ve been trying to lose.