It’s getting close to bedtime, but those cookies in the kitchen are calling to you. And dinner was hours ago. Is it really so bad to eat late at night?
Generally, it’s not a great idea to be reaching for a snack before you go to bed, especially if you’re trying to avoid excess body weight. “When we eat late at night, we tend to store extra calories from food as fat, and we don’t use stored fat as fuel. Our metabolism slows at night, so we don’t utilize energy from a late-night meal well,” said Hailey Fox, a registered dietitian with Churchill Community Hospital in Fallon, Nevada.
Plus, you’re more likely to make less-desirable choices when you eat late at night—like those cookies. So, late-night eating could trigger weight gain, which in turn can lead to obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome (a group of conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke) if you make it a habit.
In general, Fox said it’s a good idea to have a regular mealtime routine of three balanced meals per day, with two snacks in between them if needed. However, sometimes nighttime eating is unavoidable. You might be dealing with shiftwork, busy schedules or other factors in your life. “If you need to eat at night, it is better to eat something in a non-judgmental and non-stressful way,” Fox said.
If you’re eating at night, reach for these foods
Fox recommends keeping your late-night portions small—under 250 calories. Smaller servings help you sleep better and avoid reflux. Generally, you want to choose foods high in fiber and low in calories, fat and simple sugars—think fruits, vegetables and whole grains. They will help you feel full and satisfied.
Here are some good before-bed choices:
- A small bowl of cereal or oatmeal with milk
- Berries or an orange with a handful of nuts
- An apple with peanut butter or nut butter
- Cheese and whole grain crackers
- Low-fat yogurt with fruit and nuts or granola
- Cottage cheese and fruit
- Half of a peanut butter and banana sandwich
- Half of a turkey, cheese, lettuce and tomato sandwich
You may also want to choose foods that may promote restful sleep:
- Foods that are good sources of magnesium, such as nuts, seeds, spinach and leafy greens, avocados, low-fat milk or yogurt, whole grains and beans, may help you feel calm and relaxed
- Melatonin, which regulates your circadian rhythm, is naturally found in foods such as eggs, fish, nuts, mushrooms and cereal grains such as oats
It’s better to stay away from these foods if it’s getting close to bedtime
Some foods aren’t good choices, especially when you’re going to sleep soon. Fox recommends avoiding:
- Foods and drinks that contain caffeine, after 2 p.m.
- Alcohol, since it contains empty calories and doesn’t promote restful sleep
- High-fat foods such as chips and french fries, processed carbs (like candy bars, cookies and cake), carbonated drinks, spicy foods, and foods that contain peppermint—they can trigger GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) symptoms
Sleeping better can help you scale back late-night eating
If you’re awake for more hours, you’re likely to eat more food. And many people don’t get enough sleep. “Studies have shown that sleep duration and quality are associated with diet quality,” Fox said. If you’re eating at night and you aren’t sleeping well, you may want to:
- Make sure you’re sticking with a sleep schedule
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol
- Exercise earlier in the day
- Make sure you’re well hydrated but scale back on your fluids in the evening, so you don’t wake up to urinate
- Get some sun exposure in the daytime
- Avoid TV and screens close to bedtime
The bottom line
Eating late at night can lead to weight gain and interrupt your sleep. If you need to eat close to bedtime, choose small, healthy snacks so you sleep better. If you would like to talk with a health care professional to evaluate your diet and sleep habits.