Late-Night Foods: Good or Bad Idea?

Do late-night foods call your name before bed? Find out whether you should ignore them or make a dash to the fridge, and how your metabolism will react either way.

late night foods

Many nutritionists recommend a snack before bed because you won’t be able to sleep hungry

© Chris Boswell | Dreamstime.com

Is a bedtime snack as bad as we think? You might get the munchies when you’re up late working, or perhaps you had an early dinner. Regardless of the reason, experiencing hunger before bed is natural and there are misconceptions about whether late-night foods a good or bad idea. Also, the reviews are mixed.

Who Should (or Shouldn’t) Eat Late-Night Foods?

To eat or not to eat (at night) is the question, and the truth is, there is no “one size fits all.” It really depends on your individual needs. For example, individuals with diabetes commonly experience something called the “dawn phenomenon.” This means they are unable to produce enough insulin in order to remove extra glucose from their blood. This can cause high blood sugar upon waking in the morning, even if nothing was eaten after dinner and throughout the night. Some research has shown a snack before bedtime may help stabilize blood sugar. If your blood sugar is unstable, talk to your doctor to find out if a bedtime snack is right for you.

What About Metabolism?

Regulated by the thyroid, your “metabolism” is how your body converts or uses food for energy. Many people believe late-night foods are bad news because the metabolism “turns off” at night and anything we eat past a certain time is converted into fat while we sleep.

The truth is, your metabolism works very well while your sleep! In fact, your nighttime basal metabolic rate (basal metabolic rate is the total number of calories required to carry out basic bodily functions) is only about 10-35 percent slower than your daytime rate, depending on what stage of sleep you’re in. These findings were published in the journal of Metabolism in 2009. That doesn’t mean you should eat as much as you’d like (or whatever you crave!), however, it helps to explain that fasting in the evening is generally not necessary.

If I Can Have a Bedtime Snack, What Should I Eat?

Many nutritionists recommend a snack before bed because you won’t be able to sleep hungry (true!). A little snack can also prevent you from waking up during the night. Some studies link eating before bed to weight gain, which can be explained by extra caloric intake that exceeds your daily limit—in many cases that means overdoing it with sugary, processed high-calorie junk food. Having a snack after dinner can prevent you from overeating later in the evening. Consensus regarding the average healthy person, however, seems to be that if you have healthy eating habits during the day and you are physically active (as opposed to being sedentary), then a light and nutritious, well-planned nosh before bed won’t break the bank. The key is to keep it light and wholesome with respect to calories. That means the ingredients matter, along with portion size. A proper full night’s rest is equally important in the equation.

So if late-night foods are appropriate for you, which ones should you munch on? Again, your individual needs to be taken into account—for example, do you have diabetes or blood sugar issues? Generally speaking, if the snack is where it’s at, then it should be one that is made of whole foods, small in portion, low in calories and well balanced for your blood sugar. That translates to about 150-200 calories, mostly coming from clean protein and healthy fats. Avoid eating starchy, high-carb foods. Of course, avoid foods and beverages that contain caffeine as well. Keep your kitchen stocked with the right ingredients so you don’t fall prey to the wrong ones.

late-night foods

Apple slices and peanut butter: perfect choice for late-night food when you need something to tide you over ’til morning.
(Photo: © Bert Folsom | Dreamstime.com)

Fiber-licious Fruits

Soluble fiber helps to control blood glucose (sugar) and it also helps to reduce bad (LDL) cholesterol. Enjoy half to one tablespoon of your favorite nut butter with sliced apple, kiwi or other fruits high in fiber. Berries are also high in fiber.

Mix Up Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds (and their butters) contain healthy fat and protein that will help to satiate you. As a bonus, they also contain important vitamins and minerals. Consume nuts and seeds in moderation (roughly a small handful at most per day) as they are high in calories and saturated fats.  Enjoy them in unsweetened, homemade trail mixes and granola bars. You can also make your own low-carb seed crackers! These go well with fresh, unsweetened low-carb dips like guacamole and salsa.

The Dairy Placebo

If you can tolerate dairy, low fat cheese, unsweetened probiotic yogurt or kefir (fermented milk) are good choices as they contain protein, gut-healthy probiotics and some fat. Top your yogurt with a few raisins, nuts and seeds. Milk contains small amounts of tryptophan, which has been shown to make us drowsy. Realistically, there is not enough tryptophan in a serving of milk to have such an effect, but the placebo effect of having dairy before bed can be just as helpful!

Smoothies for the Win!

Get the best of all worlds by combining your favorites from the above (unsweetened yogurt, nuts, seeds and berries) into a satisfying smoothie! Be mindful of the calorie count and allow the berries to be the sweetener. Consider seeds such as hemp, sesame, flax and chia.

As a service to our readers, University Health News offers a vast archive of free digital content. Please note the date published or last update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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Lisa Cantkier

Lisa Cantkier is a nutritionist, educator, and writer who specializes in living well with food allergies and special diets. She enjoys learning about and sharing the latest research findings on … Read More

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