It’s 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night. You’ve cleaned up from dinner, your kids have gotten their baths, and the house is blanketed in silence. You are faced with a familiar grumbling, and suddenly the itsy-bitsy voice that squeaks in your head says “feed me.” Again. So you reach into your cabinets or open the fridge, hoping something will call out to you.
Just a nibble before bed, you think. Before you tear open that bag of chips, you may want to reconsider snacking before bedtime.
“Typically, snacking at night is not caused by hunger but, rather, boredom,” says Rene Ficek, a registered dietitian and the lead nutrition expert at Seattle Sutton's Healthy Eating, a fresh meal delivery service in Illinois. “Additionally, the types of food that are snacked on are usually high-calorie, indulgent food items like ice cream, cake, and chips. Combine these two factors and it is very likely that the snacker is overconsuming total daily calories, thus resulting in weight gain.”
But it isn’t just your waistline you need to worry about when snacking at night.
“I advise against snacking near bed for reasons beyond the obvious (like weight gain): because of the effects it has on sleep and future diabetes risk,” adds Alyssa Cellini, nutritionist and co-founder of My Custom Cleanse, a personalized cleanse program based in New Jersey. “Sleep quality is highly affected by your circadian rhythm, so offsetting your insulin/cortisol in the night may cause you to toss and turn — or even hit snooze on your alarm in the morning. Diabetes is caused by high blood sugar swings and especially high insulin levels in the blood. So, pasta for lunch or two cookies near bed may have very different calories, but both elevate your insulin to the same point in your blood — overwhelming your cells and getting you one step closer to diabetes.”
However, it is important to remember that the calories in a sweet snack will remain the same whether you eat them at night or in the morning.
“It is incorrect to say that for all people eating at night or after a magic hour of the day (what about people with non-traditional work hours?) is bad for everyone,” says Joey Gochnour, registered dietitian, nutritionist, and personal trainer in Austin, TX, and the owner of Nutrition and Fitness Professional, LLC. “Many active people and athletes would not otherwise get enough calories into their diets, and having a small snack before bed with protein and carbohydrates may even help you get to sleep by releasing seratonin.”If you are going to snack before bed, you need to do it wisely.
If you are going to snack before bed, you need to do it wisely. That begins with having a hard stopping time, so your body has a chance to burn off the fuel you just harvested.
“A great rule of thumb is two hours [before bed],” advises Ana Goldseker, director of nutrition for Nava Health and Vitality Centers. “The body should have ample time to properly digest its last meal before going horizontal. You want the body to be resting at night, not digesting. Better yet, review your last meal and figure out why it wasn't satisfying. If you can take nighttime snacking out of the equation, even better!”
Make sure that if you do pick up a snack before bed, it isn’t one of these naughty nighttime noshes.
Alcohol and Caffeine
“The worst things you can consume before bed are anything with caffeine or alcohol,” advises Gochnour. “Both will disrupt the body from sleep. Alcohol may relax a person, but it will interfere with the stages of restorative sleep.”
Cakes and Cookies
“Eating cakes and cookies late at night spike your sugar, creating an intense hunger in the morning,” warns Goldseker. “Chocolate chip cookies are another late night no-no,” confirms Barrie Wolfe, a nutritionist with a private practice in Westchester County, New York. “They are loaded with fat, calories and sugar. The sugar and caffeine from the chocolate will make you feel hyper and make it that much harder to get a good night’s sleep.”