For many people, a late-night snack means raiding the fridge and gorging on leftovers, junk food, and anything else they can find. For others, the mere thought of a nighttime snack is enough to give them nightmares about packing on the pounds.
The fact is, there is a middle ground when it comes to nighttime snacking. Although eating large amounts of food – especially junk food – at night can contribute to weight gain, there is mounting evidence that indicates eating a small, nutrient-rich snack before bed is actually beneficial. Multiple studies suggest that not only can certain foods help you fall asleep faster and improve the quality of your sleep, but that eating healthy foods before bed can have a positive effect on cholesterol, fat oxidation, and blood sugar. So before you head to bed with a grumbling stomach, check out some of these ideas for healthy late-night snacks that won’t keep you awake and might help you stay healthier overall.
Why You Might Need a Nighttime Snack
Before we get into what you should eat before bed, let’s look at some of the reasons why you should nosh on something at night.
- Some foods help you fall asleep. Certain foods and drinks actually contain nutrients and ingredients (such as herbs) that can help you fall asleep faster.
- Snacking helps you stay asleep. When you go to bed starving, you’re more likely to wake up in the middle of the night with hunger pangs. Not only does this increase the chance you’ll grab something unhealthy (rummaging through the pantry half-asleep does not always lead to good choices) and that you’ll eat more, but you’re also disrupting your sleep cycle, making it harder to get a good night’s rest.
- Snacking can help control blood sugar. For many diabetics, a nighttime snack is a must in order to maintain blood sugar control overnight.
- Snacking helps with muscle repair. For athletes or those who work out frequently, a snack before bed can help repair muscles and build up muscle tissue.
- Snacking supports weight maintenance. It might seem counterintuitive, but eating a healthy snack before bed can help stave off hunger and cravings that lead to overeating or unhealthy choices, which in turn contribute to weight gain. A small, 100-calorie snack with plenty of protein and fiber can help satisfy your hunger without causing weight gain.
Of course, sometimes you’re just hungry and want something to eat. When you choose the right food, you won’t need to worry about packing on unwanted pounds or making unhealthy choices.
What Makes a Good Snack?
So what makes a nighttime snack a good choice?
For starters, as with any snack, your nighttime noshes should have at least some nutritional value, without excessive amounts of sugar or fat that can keep you awake and contribute to weight gain. Some foods even contain amino acids and hormones like tryptophan and melatonin, making them a great choice for a late-night snack because they can help induce sleep.
More specifically, nutritionists recommend choosing foods that balance protein, fat, fiber, and carbohydrates: For example, a small bowl of cereal with milk, an apple with a bit of natural peanut butter, or some Greek yogurt with nuts. The right balance of nutrients will keep you feeling full, helping you stay asleep without having to ingest a lot of calories (but still benefiting from plenty of nutrients).
Best Snacks to Eat
So if a bowl of ice cream or a handful of cookies isn’t a great idea for a late-night snack, what should you eat? Here are a few ideas to help you stock the fridge and pantry.
- Bananas: Not only are bananas potassium powerhouses, a mineral that can help regulate your blood pressure, but they also contain serotonin. Serotonin helps support the production of melatonin, which helps you sleep.
- Almonds: Almonds are another powerhouse when it comes to supporting sleep. Almonds also contain melatonin, as well as high amounts of magnesium, vitamin E, and healthy fats. Magnesium is good for maintaining healthy blood pressure and proper blood sugar levels and supports melatonin production. Try combining some almond butter with bananas for a delicious snack that’s full of sleep-supporting nutrients.
- Oats: Eating refined bread, pasta, and cereal can significantly reduce your serotonin levels and make it more difficult to sleep, but a snack with whole grains like oats can help you get some shut-eye. Try a small bowl of oatmeal before bed; it’s full of fiber to fill you up and helps support melatonin production. You can also add some oats to a healthy protein-rich smoothie for an extra fiber boost.
- Cherries: Several studies have determined that drinking tart cherry juice or eating tart cherry varieties like Richmond and Montmorency, can help induce sleep and improve sleep quality. That’s because these particular cherries contain small amounts of melatonin, as well as antioxidants that help increase your body’s production of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps make you sleepy. Keep in mind that only tart cherries have this benefit; sweeter varieties, such as Bing, or jarred cherries like Maraschino, won’t improve your sleep.
- Yogurt: Greek yogurt is a protein-packed food that contains plenty of carbohydrates and healthy fats to keep you satisfied. Try mixing some yogurt with nuts for a healthy bedtime snack. Just watch out for yogurts that are high in sugar, as they typically have more calories and may keep you awake.
- Pumpkin seeds: Like almonds, pumpkin seeds are packed with magnesium, which can help support melatonin production. A single, 1-ounce serving of seeds provides 35% of a person’s recommended daily magnesium intake, so try adding some to your yogurt or oatmeal for a healthy boost.
- Turkey: It should be no surprise that turkey is on this list – who hasn’t fallen asleep after Thanksgiving dinner thanks to its high volumes of tryptophan? For healthy late-night snacking, have a slice or two of turkey on a piece of whole-grain bread for a good mix of protein, fiber, and carbohydrates, along with a healthy dose of sleep-inducing tryptophan.
- Herbal tea: Although the jury is out on whether herbal teas marketed as “sleepytime” or sleep-inducing actually work, there is some evidence that they can help you nod off. Herbs such as valerian, chamomile, lavender, and lemon balm are natural sedatives, which means they can help you fall asleep. Enjoying a cup of caffeine-free herbal tea can help you relax and unwind before bed and, with a wide array of flavors, can help stave off a craving for something sweet.
- Warm milk: There may be something behind your mother’s recommendation to have some warm milk when you couldn’t sleep. Research indicates that milk contains melatonin and tryptophan, but perhaps more importantly, the psychological connection between warm milk and sleep is powerful.
Snacks to Avoid
Just like there are foods that can help you sleep, there are also others you should avoid if you don’t want to disrupt your slumber. Obviously, anything containing caffeine is a no-go, but it’s also important to avoid sugar, spicy foods, and alcohol. Eating spicy food at night can cause stomach upset and heartburn that will keep you awake, and although the sedative effect of alcohol might seem to help you fall asleep quickly, it often leads to poor-quality sleep and repeated nighttime waking. If you want to enjoy a drink, do so about two to three hours before bedtime to give your body time to metabolize the alcohol.
Enjoying a snack before bed isn’t bad for you or your waistline, as long as you choose the right snack. Before you mindlessly nibble, consider the nutrition and sleep-supporting benefits of certain foods and make a smart, informed choice.