January 21 2021/ By Aele Bayomi Dietetic Student at Rutgers University
Reviewed by Jinan Banna, PhD, RD
Whether it’s a pick-me-up during late night studying or simply a sweet tooth before bed, late night snacking is something most of us do. There is a growing stigma around late night snacking and its contribution to weight gain and poor health, but is this really true? We’ve heard that we should focus on what we eat and not when we eat it, but how can we satisfy our cravings without going overboard? Is late night snacking a culprit in weight gain or is it a myth? We will take a closer look at these statements in the post.
Is late night snacking bad for health?
There have been many conflicting claims on whether late night snacking is the culprit with regards to extra weight gain, with studies presenting varied findings. As stated before, it’s important to focus most on what you eat instead of putting all the focus on when you eat it.
That being said, and while additional research is needed on timing of eating and health, there have been some specific potential problems identified with eating too late. Eating a heavy high-carb snack too late at night might make it harder for you to fall asleep and is not beneficial for those with acid reflux. Some studies have shown that eating too close to your sleep window will increase your daily caloric intake, but other studies state that there are metabolic processes happening while you sleep that also use energy that is burned throughout the day. The study of chrono-nutrition is a new research field within nutritional science, which looks into the effect of eating time on overall health. One of the first studies showed that those with an irregular eating schedule were at a higher risk for obesity and metabolic syndrome compared to those with a regular eating schedule. Irregular eating patterns are behaviors such as skipping breakfast and regular late night eating. Other studies have indicated that higher fat consumption prior to sleeping results in sleeping disorders, while following a Mediterranean diet has been linked to less insomnia. This reaffirms that what we eat is as important as when we eat.
While there are still many conflicting views surrounding the topic of late night eating, people will continue to snack nightly to feed their cravings. Given this, we have listed a few healthy late night snacks that won’t leave you feeling sick and will contribute some nutrients to your diet.
How to choose the right late-night snack
Snacks are great to incorporate to satisfy hunger and supply you with a boost of energy. Snacks should not be overly processed or heavy, and should be smaller than meals. From home made to prepackaged, there is a large variety of snacks available in the food market, but which one is the right one?
It is generally best to limit snacks that are high in sugar and sodium. Sticking to less processed alternatives would be best to fulfill the craving without causing too much damage. Fatty and spicy foods are to be avoided since they leave you feeling heavy and bloated before sleeping, which could make it harder to fall asleep. However, foods high in the essential amino acid tryptophan are known to aid with sleep since tryptophan is converted into serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for keeping appetite, sleep, mood, and pain in check. Foods high in tryptophan are bananas, nuts, seeds, oats, turkey, and more. Getting hungry at night could indicate that you have not had enough to eat throughout the day. It is important to listen to your body and fuel it with the amount of food that it needs. In Taylor Jones’ post on healthline, this RD states that being extremely hungry before bed could trigger unhealthy eating behavior such as binge eating before bed or loss of appetite in the morning.
Dietary components that aid in better sleep
Melatonin: a hormone released by the brain that is essential in regulating our sleep cycles. Dietary sources of melatonin are plant and animal products. Animal sources such as eggs and fish have a high concentration of melatonin, while plant based sources such as seeds and nuts are among the highest in melatonin. Recent studies have shown that consumption of dietary melatonin has anti-inflammatory characteristics, antioxidant properties, cardiovascular protection and aids in boosting immunity.
Theanine: an amino acid which is most commonly found in teas, specifically in green tea, which has an abundant amount of antioxidants. These antioxidants contribute to improving immunity and fighting chronic diseases. Studies have shown that theanine is a factor in better sleep efficiency in women, men and children due to its relaxing effect. This improvement of sleep quality allowed for better nervous system response and is utilized as a natural aid for sleeping.
Magnesium: a mineral that is known to have a wide range of health benefits in the body. Recent findings have found that a deficiency in magnesium is linked to poor sleep quality and increased sleep disruption. RD Kerri-Ann Jennings states that magnesium is involved in over 600 cellular processes in the body and is heavily connected to your nervous system, making it important in overall health. Magnesium is a regulator of melatonin, which indicates its importance in sleep regulation. Magnesium is found in foods such as avocados, nuts, legumes, seeds, leafy greens, bananas, and fatty fish.
Iron: Iron deficiency has been linked to sleeping disorders and presents additional complications in health. Studies have found poor sleep quality in those with low iron as a result of psychological symptoms of depression and anxiety. Low iron can lead to lack of attention, irritability, apathy, and drowsiness. Foods high in iron are spinach, legumes, red meat,turkey, broccoli, and fish.
Fruit bowl and yogurt parfaits
Fruit bowls are an easy, light snack choice for a late-night sweet tooth. Mixing a few of your favorite fruits such as strawberries, kiwis, and bananas is a simple recipe to enjoy during the night time. To spruce this up, adding some greek yogurt, which is rich in probiotics, would be a great complement, along with nuts, shaved coconut flakes, and a drizzle of honey.
Hard boiled eggs
If you are craving something more savory, a hard boiled egg is a good choice, especially for those studying. Eggs are known as brain food since they provide a good source of protein and contain melatonin, which helps you fall asleep. They are low in calories and supply an abundant amount of vitamins and minerals when consumed whole. Eggs are rich in vitamin A, folate, and choline. Choline is an essential nutrient and is vital for preventing diseases such as liver disease, dementia, depression and memory loss. It’s also important for pregnant women to reduce neural tube defects, along with folate. There are many spice combinations that can be used to season eggs, such as:
- Salt, pepper, and smoked paprika
- Cumin and salt
- Powdered garlic and parsley
- Cayenne pepper and red chili flakes
Whole wheat bread sandwiches
Sandwiches are an easy and healthy late night snack if done right. These can be made sweet or savory and are a more filling option for a late night snack. Whole wheat or whole grain bread are optimal choices for bread since they are often lower in simple carbs and calories per slice compared to white bread. Whole grain or vegetable-based tortillas would also be a good option to create wraps that are satisfying as well. Food combinations that can be used on toasts or wraps are:
- Peanut butter and banana
- Turkey and lettuce
- Avocado and cherry tomatoes
- Tuna and celery (optional; mix with some lite mayo)
- Hummus with smoked paprika and olive oil
For more healthy and salty snack options, refer to this blog post on healthy salty snacks.
Nuts, seeds, and fruit mixes
Seeds and nuts are packed full with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Creating a trail mix blend at home is a healthy and quick snack that is not too heavy during the late night. Almonds are known to be a super food because of the amount of fiber, protein, fat, vitamin E and more. Other great nut options are pistachios, walnuts, and cashews. Seeds are also nutrient rich and extremely versatile. For example, a serving of pumpkin seeds contains 16% of the recommended daily iron intake, while providing you with calcium, fiber, Vitamin A and C, and fatty acids. Additional healthy seed options are flaxseed, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds. Goji berries have become a recent health trend in the past few years due to their versatility and the title of being a superfood. RD Rachel Link states that a small serving of goji berries is high in fiber, vitamin A, iron, and vitamin C. Prior use of goji berries was in herbal medicine, and they have now been repurposed and are used in supplements today. Goji berries are added to supplements and powders to give consumers an extra dose of antioxidants. Other fruits such as pomegranate seeds, dried cranberries, and raisins are also good options to include in the mix. This post has more information on the healthy and unhealthy qualities of trail mix.
Hummus and Avocado Dips
Chickpeas are one of the legumes that are high in iron and supply a number of other benefits. While chickpeas have a moderate number of calories, 128 per 100gs, they provide you with protein, fat, and fiber. Hummus can be made in numerous ways which alters its health benefits by recipe. Avocados are similar to chickpeas in the sense that they provide adequate amounts of fat and fiber. Avocados in the amount of 100gs provide us with 15gs of protein, 9g of carbohydrates, and 7gs of fiber. Both chickpeas and avocados can be made into dips that are filling and reduce appetite. Fitness guru Kayla Itsines , has created three healthy hummus recipes that are dairy free and vegan. Served with whole grain crackers, carrots, or celery, hummus and avocado dips are a healthy and simple late night snack that reduce further cravings through the night.
Late night cravings are something that happens to all of us, but it is important to determine if you are actually hungry, or just looking to eat out of boredom or stress. What you eat is generally more important than when you eat. It is important to listen to your body and recognize your hunger cues to help regulate an eating schedule. Although there are conflicting views on whether late night eating is healthy or not, it is something that will continue to be studied and practiced for the years to come. Through conscious consumption, late night snackers will have healthier options to indulge in during those late night cravings.