The nighttime munchies happen to us all. Whether we place the blame on a small dinner, an intense workout, or stress and anxiety from our day, the question always remains:
Should I just ignore my cravings until morning, or eat something now?
In the world of science and nutrition, there’s some debate here. Some experts vouch for the health- and weight-related benefits of abstaining until morning, while others believe eating before bed can help you sleep better (among other benefits).
In this article, we’ll discuss the most important factors to consider when making your decision. You’ll learn the pros and cons of going to bed hungry vs. grabbing a late-night snack, discover the best foods to eat if you really can’t wait ‘til morning, and more.
The most important factor to consider here is nutrition. As long as you have healthy eating habits, follow a balanced diet, and are receiving all of your necessary nutrients each day, you should be fine whether you choose to eat at night or not.
The key here is to examine your food choices and calorie intake per day: It’s best to eat a variety of wholesome foods, avoid foods that are overly sweet or salty (especially prepackaged or highly processed foods), and to meet your calorie needs without going too much over.
If you feel that your late-night snack is tipping the calorie scale a bit too much, you may want to consider keeping a food diary to write down everything you eat for a week. Discover where your late-night snack falls in terms of nutrition and calories, and take note of how you feel at night before heading to bed. If you feel very hungry at night, feel free to reach for that small, healthy snack—but also consider whether you’re eating enough during the day. If not, you may want to consider increasing the size of your meals or eating several smaller meals to keep your blood sugar stable and your hunger in check.
A huge concern that many people have about eating at night is their weight. It’s widely believed that eating late at night, especially right before bed, causes weight gain—but is this true?
While research has been done on the topic, the data is largely inconclusive and experts follow different paths of reasoning when drawing conclusions. There are a few different factors to consider here:
Your metabolism is slower at night than it is during the day, reaching its lowest point during your 3rd stage of sleep (also called “deep sleep”). Some believe that, because of this reduction in metabolism speed, any food you eat at night is more likely to be stored as fat than food eaten during the day.
However, the reduction in metabolism speed (usually 10% to 15% lower than during the day) is not significant enough to warrant concern. While your body will digest and use up the food more slowly, it will still be able to use the nutrients from that food for things like muscle repair and cell restoration.
In short: Your metabolism does slow at night, but not enough to warrant concern about eating something small before bed.
— Calorie intake
When it comes to weight gain, the number-one factor to consider is your daily calorie intake relative to your daily calorie expenditure.
A valid argument against eating before bed is that it increases your overall calorie intake for the day. This is especially cause for concern if you don’t limit your snacking or if you fail to factor it into your daily meal plan—without proper care and planning, you could end up going way over your caloric needs and put weight on as a result.
That said, this calorie intake at night isn’t necessarily bad as long as you make sure it isn’t “extra” calories. Factor your late-night snack into the framework of your daily food consumption to make sure you don’t go over.
According to the Calories In – Calories Out theory, calories you eat before bed are no different from calories you eat at any other time. The most important thing in maintaining your weight is to consume the same number of calories as you burn each day; to lose weight, consume fewer calories.
In short: The extra bedtime calories can result in weight gain, but only if you fail to factor those calories into your eating schedule.
— Food type and amount
The foods you opt for—and how much of them you eat—play a major role in whether or not you gain weight as a result of nighttime snacking.
Certain foods are both 1) known to cause weight gain and 2) very easy to overconsume. You should avoid foods that are high in added sugars, fat, or sodium; opt instead for foods with a moderate amount of protein, especially those that contain tryptophan (more on this later). That means no soda, candy, or chips!
Regardless of the food you snack on, make sure it’s a small and controlled portion. Overdoing even a healthy snack can result in excess calories and weight gain.
Depending on your weight goals and what you’ve eaten during the day, a healthy snack of around 100-300 calories should be fine.
In short: Keep your snacks healthy and don’t eat too much!
As mentioned earlier, your digestion slows at night just like your metabolism does. While you shouldn’t necessarily be concerned about weight gain in this regard, eating before bed can have a negative impact on your digestion. Common issues include:
- Acid reflux
- Uncomfortable fullness
- Pain or discomfort in the stomach
Digestion is another area where food type and amount come into play. You should avoid foods that commonly trigger these digestion issues (soda, alcohol, caffeine, spicy foods) and opt for small snacks rather than large meals.
Speaking of large meals, you should wait roughly 3 hours after a large meal before heading to bed. This gives your body time to digest the food before you lie down (a position that makes digestion even more difficult), thus reducing your chance of experiencing the negative symptoms listed above.
Sleeping is one of the most important things you do. Seriously. While you’re asleep, your body repairs itself and your brain performs a range of functions: storing long-term memories, clearing out built-up toxins, regulating hormone production, and more. Sleep also ties in with your hunger levels and the amount you eat each day. Here are two crucial things to consider:
There are two hormones that play a major role in our appetite and body weight: ghrelin (makes you feel hungry) and leptin (makes you feel satisfied). Our brain releases ghrelin into the bloodstream roughly 3 hours after we’ve eaten something, in order to make us feel hungry again. Leptin is released upon eating in order to make us feel full and keep us from overeating.
Because sleep allows the brain to better regulate hormones, not getting enough sleep can have the opposite effect. Those with poor sleep patterns tend to have higher levels of ghrelin and lower levels of leptin—this makes them more likely to indulge in food when they don’t need it and makes it more difficult to know when they’re full.
Two common reasons people struggle to fall or stay asleep are: 1) feeling too full, and 2) feeling too hungry.
Eating too much before bed can result in the digestive issues we mentioned earlier, which can make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Not getting enough sleep can throw your “hunger hormones” off balance and make you more likely to overeat the next day. In addition, going to sleep on a full stomach can cause spikes in insulin which can lead to weight gain.
Going to bed hungry can also have a negative impact on your sleep. This is because the hunger pains may distract you and keep you from sleeping well at night. In addition, it will cause your blood sugar to decrease—this can make you feel hungrier in the morning, and result in you eating a larger breakfast (and thus, more calories).
When it comes to whether you should eat at night, it’s important to take note of how you’re feeling.
Is your hunger great enough that it will disrupt your sleep, or can you hold off until morning?
Reasons for Eating at Night
One more factor you should consider before heading to the fridge or pantry is why you’re eating. The only two reasons you should snack before bed are:
1) if you’re actually hungry, or
2) if you need something to keep your blood sugar stable through the night.
If you’re eating due to stress, depression, boredom, or out of habit, you should consider trying to hold off until morning.
Bonus: Some Great Before-Bed Snacks to Try
Now you know: Eating before bed can be healthy for you if you’re eating the right foods and not going overboard. But what should you be eating for maximum health benefits?
Experts recommend consuming foods that are high in either tryptophan or melatonin. Tryptophan is an amino acid not produced in the human body; it’s thought to aid in getting better sleep and to improve one’s overall mood (another essential aspect of sleeping well). Melatonin is a hormone the brain produces at night to help us sleep better; you can also find melatonin in supplement form and in certain foods.
Here are a few foods high in tryptophan:
And here are some foods high in melatonin:
- Tart cherries
Note that many of these foods are also high in protein, which is another ideal nutrient for a before-bed snack. In addition, some of them overlap which might make them the most ideal for nighttime snacking!
In this article, we answered the question: Is it bad to go to bed hungry?
We looked at several factors that determine this answer, from one’s daily calorie intake to how well one sleeps, and talked about what to look for in the ideal before-bed snack. As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to going to bed hungry. There’s usually nothing wrong with eating a laten-night snack, as long as you 1) factor it into your overall diet, 2) don’t eat too much, and 3) choose a healthy and sleep-friendly food.
We hope this article answered your questions and quelled your midnight munchie fears, but feel free to let us know in the comments if you have any additional concerns. We’d be glad to help.
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