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What to Snack On at Night and Why

What should you do when you have the munchies after dinner? Many of us have heard that heavy late-night meals and bedtime snacking are bad news if we’re trying to maintain a healthy weight and sound eating habits. But there’s more to the story.

Read on for the latest science on late-night snacking and the best solutions for a case of nighttime munchies.

What Does the Science Say?

First, it’s important to mention that our bodies have something called a circadian clock which maintains our daily rhythms and metabolism. Your circadian clock is closely linked to the things going on around you, especially light-and-dark cycles. Research also suggests that it may be affected by when and what we eat. While the research isn’t conclusive, there may be a relationship between late-night eating and increased risk of metabolic disease, glucose intolerance and higher BMI.  One clinical trial of young women, for example, concluded that eating later in the day was associated with lower resting energy expenditure (how much energy we burn at rest) and decreased glucose tolerance (a biomarker for diabetes).

Even though there are many compelling studies on meal timing and the circadian clock in rats and mice, the evidence from human studies is limited. And the human studies we do have tend to be skewed by things such as how much we sleep and what we eat. For example, both mice and people tend to prefer fatty foods during late-night hours (and less so in early morning hours), so it’s hard to tell whether the negative effects of late eating are due to meal timing, food choices, or a combination of both.

So… Can I Have a Late-Night snack?

Absolutely! Even though eating large meals late at night is tied with negative metabolic outcomes, the good news is that new research suggests this may not be true for snacks. Choosing nutritious low-energy foods seems to be unrelated to weight gain and does not appear to be harmful. In fact, a balanced snack before bed can even be helpful for muscle synthesis and heart health if chosen thoughtfully. Not to mention that going to bed hungry can make it really tough to fall asleep. There’s no reason to ignore your hunger signals at the expense of your well-being.

What Should I Snack On?

If you’re hungry a few hours after dinner, go for a whole-food-based snack that’s approximately 150 calories and well-balanced in complex carbohydrates and protein.  

If you have trouble falling asleep at night, focus on foods such as turkey breast, salmon, eggs and tofu, which contain tryptophan, a precursor to melatonin. Cherries also make a great bedtime snack because they’re a natural source of melatonin. Warm foods such as soup or herbal tea may also help you relax before bed.

Avoid foods that are highly processed, high in fat or rich in simple sugars, as well as salty, spicy and caffeinated foods. All of these can cause digestive distress and make it tough to fall asleep. Additionally, try not to go to sleep right after you eat. Instead, leave 30 minutes to an hour before you hit the pillow to give your body some time to digest.

Healthy Evening Snack Ideas:

  • A hard-boiled egg and half a cup of warm vegetable soup.
  • One cup of boiled soybeans (edamame in the shell).
  • Turkey slices on whole-grain toast with a slice of avocado.
  • One cup of apple slices with a tablespoon of almond butter.
  • Half a cup of cottage cheese with fresh fruit.
  • Half a cup of plain Greek yogurt with fresh fruit.
  • A smoothie with cherries, plain yogurt and unsweetened cacao powder.
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