We’ve all heard the warnings: indulging in a late-night snack is a one-way ticket to weight gain, insomnia and poor eating habits. But if your stomach is grumbling as the clock chimes midnight, eventually you’re gonna go with your gut. Is that really so bad? We partnered with Sleep Number to talk to some diet and sleep experts to find out why we crave food at night, how eating in the wee hours affects our body chemistry, and what kinds of midnight snacks won’t pack on the pounds.
Getting hungry at night is a matter of science.
A 2013 study published in the journal Obesity found that volunteers in the two-week lab experiment were hungriest at night, no matter when they woke up, how much they’d eaten during the day, and when they’d eaten their last meal. Even more fascinating, the volunteers’ nighttime cravings were on average for fatty, sugary, salty and starchy junk food, not fruits, veggies or whole grains.
“There are many complex reasons why people snack late at night,” says Suzanne Jezek-Arriaga, a nutrition and holistic health coach and the author of the book, Nourish to Flourish. “Sometimes it’s because of boredom, or your body could not be getting enough nutrition. If you are eating too many sweets, junk foods or carbohydrates, and not eating enough healthy fats and protein during the day, you can set yourself up for an insulin crash resulting in cravings.”
Additionally, Jezek-Arriaga says that the hormone cortisol, which controls the release of blood sugar from the liver, may also be to blame for late night binges. “If you are stressed, your cortisol level can go up, which will make you hungrier and make your blood sugar and insulin levels rise,” she says.
Cortisol levels typically go down at night, but staying up past your bedtime can cause them to spike again.
You might also be driven to snack at night if you’re depriving yourself during the day, says Lindsey Janerio, a licensed and registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition to Fit in Sarasota, Florida. “Many struggle with trying to meticulously stay on their diet during the day, which leads to an inadequate energy intake,” says Janerio. “This can cause hunger that disturbs sleep to the point where you wake up and can’t fall back asleep until you eat. It can also drive people to overeat at night, so a bedtime snack becomes a series of bedtime snacks that end up larger than all of the combined daily meals, which can also affect quality of sleep.”
Is eating at night all that bad?
In a word, yes. “Midnight snacking brings on more health problems than just weight gain,” says Cara Walsh, a registered dietitian at Medifast Weight Control Centers of California. “According to a Danish study, late night eating can cause a myriad of health problems, including acid reflux and ― in the worst case scenario ― esophageal cancer.”
Other studies have shown that calories consumed late at night are more likely to be stored as fat, an evolutionary holdover from a time when food was scarce. We crave fatty, carb-heavy things at night, because our bodies want to hold onto those calories. In the past, this helped our ancestors survive periods of starvation, but today, with a McDonald’s gracing every other corner, it’s helping to make us sick.
Resetting your snack clock.
So how do you stop yourself from heading to the fridge when you should be fast asleep? Tehzeeb Lalani, owner of Scale Beyond Size, a Mumbai-based nutrition counseling center, says you should take stock of your lifestyle, and eat accordingly.
“We often hear that we shouldn’t eat after 6 or 7 p.m., but what’s left out of this wisdom is lifestyle customization,” says Lalani. “A 6 p.m. dinner makes sense for those who are in bed and fast asleep by 10:00 p.m., but if you’re usually up until 1 a.m., a dinner at 6 is a serious trap. At midnight, you will be so hungry that you’ll raid the fridge to make up for the calorie deficit you’ve created.”
Instead of eating six to seven hours before you plan to hit the sack, Lalani suggests moving back dinner time a few hours. “Finish your dinner at least two hours before bedtime to allow for proper digestion,” she says.
Still hungry? Be mindful about your choices.
If you simply can’t hit the sheets without having a quick snack first, pretty much all the dietitians we spoke with recommended eating something between 150-200 calories that’s high in protein, and finding ways to cut out those calories throughout the day. Maybe skip that after-lunch cookie, or opt for no cream and sugar in your early morning coffee.
Kate Schlag, the in-house nutritionist at Munchery, a healthy meal-delivery service, recommends looking for a late night snack that’s a good mix of complex carbs and protein: “A cup of greek yogurt with berries or a slice of whole grain bread and peanut butter are good,” she says. “Avoid overly fatty, spicy, sugary, or acidic foods ― as well as anything caffeinated or with alcohol―as these foods can cause indigestion or delay sleep.”
Other suggestions for sleep-promoting midnight snacks? “Tart cherry juice is rich in melatonin ― the sleep hormone ― and has been shown to aid sleep,” says Jezek-Arriaga. “Bananas are a good source of vitamin B6, magnesium, and the amino acid L-tryptophan, which is needed to make melatonin, and almonds are rich in magnesium, another mineral that promotes sleep.”
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