We dive into the research and share the best and worst late-night snacks to eat when you’re hungry and it’s close to bedtime.
There are a number of reasons people eat after dinner, whether because of boredom, stress, cravings, or physical hunger. But, there’s also a lot of confusion around if you should eat after dinner. And, if it is OK, what are the best things to eat at that time.
“If you’re hungry at night, you should eat something,” says Sarah Pflugradt, M.S., RD, a family nutrition expert. “Eating at night will not slow down your metabolism and if you’re smart about snacking, you won’t gain weight either. Do a mental inventory of what you’ve eaten throughout the day and see what you’ve missed. Most often, it’s going to be fruits, vegetables, or dairy. If that’s the case, get in that extra fiber and calcium,” she says.
Aim to eat balanced meals of fiber, protein, and healthy fat spaced every three to four hours throughout the day. This keeps blood sugar stable instead of crashing, spiking, and leading to cravings at night. Boost protein intake too. Eating more protein during the day is associated with less desire to snack later in the evening.
You may have heard that eating after 8 p.m. isn’t good for you, while others say it has nothing to do with the time but with what you’re eating at that time. According to the research, it’s both. Timing, quality of food, and quantity of food all affect whether late-night noshing has positive or negative health effects.
Eating more calories than your body needs can lead to weight gain over time. Research presented at the 2020 European and International Conference on Obesity found that late-night eaters consume 40% of their daily calories after 6 p.m. Not only that, but the quality of those calories wasn’t optimal, with snacks higher in sugar and fat and lower in fiber and protein. A 2014 study found that people who ate closer to bedtime ate more total daily calories; however, they did not have a higher body mass index. But another study found that consuming calories late into the evening was associated with a higher BMI.
Along with weight gain, late-night snacks could adversely affect metabolic health. One study found that a late-night dinner is associated with poor glycemic control in people with type 2 diabetes. And emerging research is uncovering that eating as late as 10 p.m. may negatively affect metabolic parameters, including glucose intolerance and reducing the breakdown of fat.
In summary, nighttime noshing usually leads to eating more calories and less nutrient-dense foods, which over time can impair blood sugar control and lead to weight gain. That said, no one wants to go to bed hungry. If you had a smaller or earlier dinner you may need a pre-bedtime snack. You can avoid some of these negative outcomes and still eat after 8 p.m. by choosing better-for-you options. Choose mostly snacks that pack protein, fiber, and healthy fat. This combo slows the rise of blood sugar and is digested slowly, which will keep you full.
Here you will learn which snack food is the best and worst to eat late at night
Best: Half a Turkey Sandwich
When you want something to fill you up, half a sandwich on whole-wheat bread is a good pick. Your body digests whole grains more slowly so you’ll feel satisfied longer. And turkey has tryptophan, an amino acid that helps to make you sleepy. If you’re not into turkey, try peanut or almond butter on whole-wheat toast. Nut butter has healthy fats that raise your levels of serotonin, a feel-good mood chemical that helps you relax.
Worst: Leftover Pizza
It might look tempting, but anything that’s too greasy can cause heartburn, especially if you lie down soon after indulging. A snack that has fewer than 200 calories is a much safer bet.
Best: Whole-Grain Crackers With Cheese
If you’re craving something cheesy, try a small amount with a few whole-grain crackers. Or go for a scoop of cottage cheese, which also has tryptophan.
Worst: Bean and Cheese Burrito
Chowing down on something fatty and spicy isn’t a great idea close to bedtime. Not only could you end up with heartburn, but you might also have lots of uncomfortable gas thanks to the beans (which would be a healthy add-in earlier in the evening).
As long as it’s not drenched in butter or super salty, popcorn’s a pretty good choice. It’s a whole grain and it has fiber, so it’ll be more satisfying than chips and tide you over for longer.
The fat and salt are a bad combo, especially as bedtime nears. Plus, it’s easy to have too many, so what starts out as a small treat could turn into a binge that’s bad for your mood and your waistline.
Best: A Low-Sugar Granola Bar
This can be a good stand-in for a cookie, as long as you check the nutrition label. Make sure your bar has some protein and fiber and not too much sugar. Or reach for half a banana and a handful of almonds — both good sources of magnesium, a mineral that can help you wind down. This fruit and nut combo has some tryptophan, too.
Worst: Cookies and Chocolate
Too much sugar will perk you up — at least for a bit — when you should be slowing down. Plus, a sugar high is often followed by a crash that can leave you feeling lousy.
Best: Greek Yogurt
When you want a creamy treat, protein-packed Greek yogurt is a better idea. Top it with some cherries or raspberries, which have melatonin, a hormone that helps lull you into dreamland.
Worst: Ice Cream
Ben and Jerry might be calling your name, but try to resist. The fat and sugar can make it harder to snooze. And if you choose a flavor with chocolate, you’ll get the caffeine you don’t want at a late hour.
It’s not just for breakfast. The warmth can be soothing, and the fiber will help fill you up. Oatmeal also has melatonin, which promotes sleep.
Worst: Sugary Cereal
It’s loaded with empty carbs, so it won’t satisfy you for long. If you’re in the mood for cereal, swap your fruity, frosty, or coco flakes for a low-sugar, high-fiber variety.
Best: Herbal tea
A cup of herbal (caffeine-free) tea can help you unwind before bed. Try chamomile, passionflower, or valerian. Peppermint can be a relaxing choice, too, as long as you don’t tend to get heartburn.
You probably know to stay away from coffee in the wee hours, but watch out for tea and soda with caffeine as well. Try to cut off all caffeine at least 6 hours before bedtime. And carbonated drinks can be a problem even if they’re caffeine-free. The bubbles can make you feel bloated and trigger heartburn. A nightcap isn’t a good idea, either. While alcohol can make you feel sleepy, it can also make it harder to stay asleep.
Avoid Mindless Munching
If you find yourself craving something while watching late-night TV, pause and ask yourself if you’re really hungry. Maybe you’re just bored, restless, or ready to turn in for the night? But if you are truly hungry, don’t ignore your body’s signals: It’s hard to fall asleep when your tummy’s rumbling or your blood sugar is low. Choosing the right nighttime snack may help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.
Think Small and Satisfying
Even if you feel ravenous, don’t overdo it. Going to bed with a too-full stomach can lead to heartburn and bloating, which will make it much harder to rest. Instead, aim for a “mini-meal,” ideally one that has a little protein and some complex carbs.