Hunger strikes late at night, and even though you know you should probably just go to bed, you raid the kitchen for something, anything to satiate that nagging desire. While eating a slice of pizza, some ice cream or potato chips might satiate the craving, chances are you won’t be feeling so great when trying to fall asleep after, or even the next morning.
As the old saying goes, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.” Late-night eating is generally discouraged, as recent studies suggest that the body may process food differently at various times of the day. If you eat before sleeping, your body is more likely to store calories as fat rather than convert it to energy, though more research is needed to confirm whether the timing of meals can be connected to weight gain rather than the typical model of calories in vs. calories out.
We chatted with four nutritionists to get the scoop on late-night snacking, as well as their recommendations for better-for-you options if you just have to eat after dinner.
When eating at night, aim to have your last meal a few hours before bed to give your body time to digest.
“Nighttime is when you are the least metabolically active and is the main reason you shouldn’t eat large amounts in the evening,” said Jonathan Valdez, owner of Genki Nutrition and media rep for New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. He recommends eating dinner, which should be the lightest of your meals for the day, at least 2-3 hours before bed to give your body ample time to digest. Additionally, he said a big meal right before bed can lead to problems sleeping.
Midnight munchies might mean you didn’t eat enough during the day.
“If you find that you’re consistently hungry late at night, try to determine if you’re eating enough earlier in the day,” said Amy Gorin, MS, RDN and owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in New York. She recommends eating a meal or snack every 3-5 hours.
Valdez adds that you should start the day with a breakfast high in fiber, protein and calories, avoid skipping meals and ensure that each meal has an adequate amount of calories, carbohydrates, protein, fat and fiber to keep you full. “Snacking has its purposes, especially if you work out or to avoid overeating at the next meal,” said Valdez.
Eat if you’re hungry, but first make sure what you’re feeling is actually hunger.
“If you’re hungry you should eat something, no matter what time it is,” said Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD and founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness in New York. But sometimes our desire to eat late at night is rooted in something else, such as stress or other emotional issues, habit or boredom. “Often we just reach for food on autopilot, without processing what we are actually feeling. If it’s not physical hunger, what is causing you to want to eat? Be intentional with your eating and work on making a conscious decision to eat,” Rumsey told HuffPost.
It’s easier said than done, but it’s an important point. If you’re feeling restless, Gorin recommends a walk or a light workout. For emotional eating, “try to practice a coping skill that actually helps that emotion,” Rumsey said. If you’re stressed, for example, she suggests trying something else to take your mind off things, like watching a funny movie or listening to music.
“On occasion, satisfying non-physical hunger cravings is OK as long as a habit is not made out of it,” said Rebecca Ditkoff, MPH, RD, CDN and founder of Nutrition by RD. Instead of a snack, she recommends treating yourself to a cup of herbal tea or warm almond milk with turmeric and cinnamon.
If you do have to snack, go for smart carbs, healthy fats and protein.
A satiating after-dinner snack consists of one or a combination of the following, outlined by Ditkoff: protein to curb hunger (such as 1/2 cup of Greek yogurt or an ounce of cheese), filling healthy fats (like 1/4 cup nuts or a quarter of an avocado) and smart carbohydrates made with whole grains and filled with fiber (try 2-3 cups of popcorn).
“Carbohydrates are a good choice because they trigger insulin release, which can help tryptophan (an amino acid that helps make melatonin) enter your brain and bring on sleep,” Rumsey said, noting that pairing carbs with protein will help trigger appetite-suppressing hormones and keep you full until morning.
For Valdez, protein is king. If you’re craving something sweet he recommends Greek yogurt with fruit or peanut butter with apple slices. Jerkies (beef, pork or fish), homemade or packaged trail mix, string cheese and a warm glass of milk are also on his list.
Rumsey also recommends trail mix, and makes her own with dried fruit (a source of carbohydrates and natural sugar) and pistachios (for their high protein and fiber content). Oatmeal, a good source of whole grain carbs, is also on her list, as well as crackers with hummus. Food and drinks with caffeine, including coffee, caffeinated tea, soft drinks and chocolate, should be avoided.
Ditkoff’s snack picks include a slice of Ezekiel toast with a tablespoon of nut butter or, for something lighter, a spoonful of nut butter or a Blue Diamond 100-calorie snack pack. Another favorite portion-controlled snack is Breakstone’s 4-ounce cottage cheese cups (90 calories) paired with apple slices. Tart cherries (which contain melatonin) and nuts like almonds, cashews or pecans (high in magnesium, another mineral beneficial to relaxation and sleep) round out the list. Ditkoff agrees that caffeine should be avoided, as well as spicy and greasy foods that can upset the stomach and lead to poor sleep quality.
If you’re going to eat late at night, do so mindfully.
This goes for all meals, but nighttime meals are often spent in front of a screen, which can suppress natural satiety cues from the body, reduce your ability to fully enjoy what you’re eating and ultimately lead to overeating. “I’m a believer in listening to your body and honoring cravings,” Ditkoff said. “The key is finding balance and not overindulging, and watching portion size ― especially later in the evening.”