Should you eat at night? That’s a question I’ve been asked many times since I started writing about what time of the day is best for your eating (the answer: whenever you want as long as it’s quality food and not junk). Eating late at night can make it hard for you to sleep, but you don’t know if this is a bad thing or not. Is eating late at night a bad or good thing to do? Some people have said that eating at night makes them gain weight. But is this true? And is it true for everyone?
Is It Bad to Eat Before Bed?
Eating before bed is controversial
Whether you should eat before bed — defined as between dinner and bedtime — has become a hot topic in nutrition.
Conventional wisdom says that eating before bed could cause weight gain because your metabolism usually slows down when you fall asleep. This could increase the likelihood that the calories will be stored as fat.
Alternatively, some health experts say that eating before bed is perfectly fine and may improve sleep or weight loss.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that many people are unsure of what the best option is.
Part of the problem is that there’s evidence to support both sides of the argument.
Although many people believe that a slower metabolism during sleep leads to weight gain, your nighttime basal metabolic rate is almost as high as during the day. Your body still needs plenty of energy while you sleep.
There’s also limited evidence supporting the idea that calories count more before bedtime than they do at any other time of the day
Eating before bed is controversial. Even though there’s no definitive physiological reason why eating before bed would cause weight gain, several studies have found evidence that it might.
It may lead to unhealthy habits
The current evidence shows no definitive physiological reason why eating before bed should cause weight gain. However, several studies show that people who eat before bed are more likely to gain weight.
The reason for this is much simpler than you might expect. It turns out that people who eat before bed are more likely to gain weight simply because a bedtime snack is an extra meal and, therefore, extra calories.
Not only that, but the evening is the time of day when some tend to feel the hungriest.
Research has also found that those who experience stress tend to see a rise in ghrelin — the hunger hormone — in the evening. This makes it even more likely that a bedtime snack will end up pushing your calorie intake over your daily calorie needs.
There are those who like to snack at night while watching TV or working on their laptops, and it’s no surprise that these habits might lead to weight gain.
Plus, some people become extremely hungry before bed because they didn’t eat enough during the day.
This extreme hunger can cause a cycle of eating too much before bed, then being too full to eat much the next morning, and again becoming overly hungry before bed the next evening.
This cycle, which can easily lead to overeating and weight gain, highlights why many individuals should eat balanced meals during the day.
It would seem that the problem with eating at night isn’t explicitly linked to your metabolism switching to storing calories as fat at night. Instead, weight gain can be caused by bedtime snacking, which increases your caloric intake.
Eating before bed can cause weight gain because of habits like eating while watching TV or consuming too many extra calories before bed.
It’s not good if you have acid reflux
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a common condition that affects 18.1 to 27.8 percent of people in the United States. It happens when gastric contents such as stomach acid splash back into your throat.
- difficulty swallowing
- a lump in the throat
- dental erosions
- chronic cough
If you have any of these symptoms, you may want to avoid eating before bed because lying down makes it much easier to regurgitate.
Therefore, if you have reflux, it’s a good idea to avoid eating anything for at least 3 hours before lying down in bed.
Additionally, you might want to avoid drinking or eating anything containing caffeine, alcohol, tea, chocolate, or hot spices. All of these foods can aggravate symptoms.
People who have acid reflux should not eat anything for at least 3 hours before bedtime. They may also want to avoid trigger foods, which can cause symptoms to worsen.
Best Late-Night Snacks
1. String Cheese
“A part-skim mozzarella cheese stick is a great late-night snack. It contains about 100 calories and 7 grams of protein. Protein is an important factor for any late-night snack because it keeps you feeling full,” says registered dietitian Lauren Kaufman M.S., M.Ed., RD, CDN.
“Or make a mini cheese board,” adds Pflugradt, “A mini cheese board can help you feel like you are getting a pretty substantial snack.”
Pair a couple of cheese cubes with a few crackers, add grapes and some cucumber sticks—you have some commonly missed nutrients—calcium and fiber. You can also try including whole-grain crackers for some crunch and filling fiber.
“Walnuts are an awesome late-night snack because they naturally contain melatonin, a compound that supports healthy sleep,” says Lauren Manaker, M.S., RDN, LD. “Plus, walnuts naturally contain magnesium, a mineral that can help calm nerve activity and help people get some healthy shut-eye,” she says.
“Pistachios are full of melatonin, too, which may help you sleep better,” says Pflugradt, “And they also contain fiber and protein to help keep you fuller, longer. Go for the pistachios in the shells to help keep you busy and not go overboard. Choose either unsalted or lightly salted to cut down on sodium.”
3. Greek Yogurt with Fruit
“Greek yogurt contains gut-friendly probiotics and protein to keep you full and stabilize blood sugar,” says Lisa Young, Ph.D., RDN, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim. Young suggests pairing yogurt with tart cherries, which are rich in melatonin. Berries are a great option, too, because they are high in fiber.
Rebecca Clyde, M.S., RDN, CD, a cooking-for-one expert at Nourish Nutrition, suggests making a peanut butter Greek yogurt dip. “Dip crunchy celery, apples or graham crackers into it for a great way to add in some extra fruits and vegetables but also protein to keep you full and satisfied,” she says. She adds, “Stir a spoonful of peanut butter into plain Greek yogurt and add a touch of sweetener, like maple syrup or honey.”
If you’ve got a salty, crunchy craving after dinner, reach for the popcorn. “Popcorn is a high-fiber snack that can keep you feeling satisfied until the morning,” says Kristen Smith, M.S., RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Just be cautious with what you flavor it with—lay off large amounts of butter and salt. Sprinkle with heart-healthy fats like olive oil or fresh herbs.”
“Buy single-serve bags or portion the popcorn out into a bowl to help keep calories in check instead of mindlessly eating out of the bag on the couch,” she adds. You can also make your own microwave popcorn with our recipe.
5. Whole Wheat Toast with Peanut Butter
Whole wheat toast and whole grain crackers contain complex carbohydrates (think: fiber), which slow the rise of blood sugar. Pair with peanut butter, which is filled with protein and healthy fat, and you’ll stay full until the morning. “Peanut butter contains healthy fats that raise serotonin levels,” says Young. “Serotonin is a feel-good mood hormone that may help you relax,” she adds. You can also spread peanut butter on apple slices to satisfy your sweet tooth.
5 Worst Late-Night Snacks
“The acidic sauce and high-fat cheese that pizza is made of may cause you to wake up with a stomachache,” says Smith. She adds, “Most traditional pizza options offer significant fat and calorie amounts, which may contribute to weight gain if eaten in excess at snack time.”
Fat is digested slowly, so high-fat foods can lead to reflux, which is exacerbated if you lie down shortly after eating. The pizza crust is also high in refined carbohydrates, which impair healthy blood sugar metabolism.
2. High-Sugar Cereals
If you know, you know. There’s definitely a nighttime cereal eaters club because what’s not to love about cereal? Well, for one, the sugar. “Eating cereal containing high amounts of added sugar right before bed can cause a spike in your blood sugar and increase insulin levels, causing you to wake up feeling hungry,” says Smith. “Cereal can be a suitable snack prior to bedtime, but choose high-fiber, lower-sugar options,” adds Smith. A good rule of thumb is to choose one where the amount of fiber and protein combined is more than the sugar.
Did you know that there are about the same calories in 3 cups of popcorn as in 12 chips? But who eats just 12 chips? Chips are one of the worst offenders at night because they contain very few nutrients: no fiber and no protein, with some fat from the oil. Otherwise, they are mostly refined carbohydrates, which aren’t great for you. Swap for popcorn or whole-grain crackers instead.
It’s common to crave sweets after dinner. If you’re not eating balanced meals throughout the day, it’s no surprise your body wants sugar at night because it’s the quickest form of energy. But sometimes you crave chocolate because you just want some chocolate—and that’s OK. Satisfy your craving in a healthier way by getting rid of the candy and opting for fruit or dark chocolate instead. Candy is just added sugars with little to no nutritional value. An ounce of dark chocolate, on the other hand, has 15% of the recommended Daily Value of magnesium, a mineral linked to improved sleep.
5. Spicy Food
“Eating spicy foods at bedtime can cause your heart rate to increase, making it more difficult to fall asleep,” says Smith, “it can also increase the risk for acid reflux and tummy upset throughout the night.”
Heartburn and gas don’t go well with optimal sleep, so skip the wasabi peas and opt for some roasted chickpeas or edamame with sea salt. And if dinner is spicy, have it on the earlier side so your food can digest before you hit the hay.
Surprising Benefits of Eating at Night
There are several benefits to eating at night.
For years you’ve probably heard that it’s bad to eat before bed. And that may be true if you’re on a fasting diet. But eating at night isn’t a weight gain trigger, so you’re OK if you’re snacking on a pomegranate or eating dates at night. In fact, there are a lot of surprising benefits to a nighttime snack.
1. Improves Overnight Muscle Synthesis
One of the common reasons you’ve heard that you shouldn’t eat before bed is that it will cause you to gain weight. And sure, binging on snacks in bed isn’t great for your waistline. But it turns out that nighttime meals can actually help you improve your body’s appearance.
A study in Nutrients in January 2015 found that a bedtime snack helped men synthesize muscle in their sleep. The researchers of the study recommended limiting the meal to 150 calories for the best effects. A study published in December 2017 in the Journal of Nutrition suggests 40 grams of protein for your nightly meals. That’s a little more than 150 calories, but sticking to proteins is still a good idea.
However you fill your 150 calories, the good news is you’re not gaining weight from it. And if you are, it’s muscle weight. Now that’s the kind of weight you want to gain, right? The type of weight that makes your body look toned and fit, not soft.
2. Improves Your Morning Metabolism
If you’re concerned about gaining weight, then you don’t want to neglect your metabolism. It’s the process that your body uses to convert food into energy. When it’s not functioning at its fullest, your body will store more fat. So if you want to lose weight, you want to ensure that your metabolism is functioning at its best.
Recent studies show eating before has a bed positive impact on the metabolism in the morning. Both healthy men and women who had obesity, according to the Nutrients study, had improved metabolisms from bedtime meals. The study showed that eating a small snack before bed causes the metabolism to kick into gear by morning. So when you eat breakfast, your body will have an easier time turning your food to energy.
A British Journal of Nutrition January 2014 study had similar results. The participants — active men — showed increased metabolic activity in the morning. This study noted improved metabolic impacts of eating different proteins and carbs, which means that you don’t have to limit your snack to a protein bar to get this benefit.
3. Improves Your Morning Appetite
It might sound counterintuitive, but eating before bed can make you less hungry for breakfast in the morning. If your goal is to lose weight, then reducing your appetite is a good start. So while a pre-bed snack sounds like more food, it may not be as long as you listen to your reduced appetite come breakfast.
The Nutrients study examined the capacity for late night meals to reduce morning hunger. The researchers focused on populations of men who were healthy and athletic and women who had obesity. There was evidence of glycemic blowbacks in the females studied, but regular workouts combated this effect. Still, additional studies need to be done on other populations, such as healthy women, before claims can be made.
A study in the August 14 issue of the British Journal of Nutrition also focused on women who had obesity. They observed the same side effects as the Nutrients study. The article noted the reduction of morning appetite following consumption of a bedtime snack. Research continues to provide evidence that eating at night may reduce your morning appetite.
4. Some Foods Help You Sleep
One of the benefits of eating before bed that isn’t all about weight is its ability to help you sleep. You may not realize this, but some foods contain nutrients that improve sleep function. So if you eat a snack packed with melatonin, for example, you’ll likely have an easier time falling asleep. In some cases, it’ll even help you stay asleep.
A Nutrients article from April 2017 looked at the melatonin levels of certain foods and found that snacks with additions such as nuts and wheat supply a good amount of melatonin. A study in the March 2015 issue of Neuron points out the vital role melatonin plays in falling and staying asleep — something particularly helpful for those with insomnia.
Melatonin is a hormone made in your body that regulates your sleep cycle, with levels going up at night and coming down in the morning. Many people supplement with melatonin to improve sleep, but adding foods that contain the natural hormone may work just as well.
If you don’t have insomnia, there are still reasons to make sure you’re getting enough sleep. A study in the June 2016 issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Nutritional and Physical Activity found that sleep deprivation causes weight gain. So you might want to start working harder on getting better sleep. Melatonin has a lot of other benefits as well; for example, it improves your immune system, reduces signs of aging and is anti-inflammatory.
Best Foods to Eat Before Sleep
A popular garnish on meats and fishes (especially in France!), tarragon is as medicinal as it is flavorful. “Tarragon has been used as a remedy for poor sleep quality,” explains integrative health practitioner Kristin Grayce McGary LAc., MAc., author of Holistic Keto for Gut Health: A Program for Resetting your Metabolism. The spring herb also has antioxidant properties, supports digestion, and is a good source of potassium, she says.
Your move: purchase either fresh tarragon (which FYI can last in the fridge about 4 days) or dried tarragon. Then, either make this Whole30 Butternut Squash, Fennel, and Tarragon Hash, this Creamy Mushroom, Chicken, and Tarragon Soup, or sprinkle the herb on a slab of salmon, chicken, veal, or whatever your meat of choice is.
Sleeping poorly? That’s no excuse to cut out kale. “You SHOULD be eating dark leafy greens with dinner,” says celebrity nutritionist Dr. Daryl Gioffre (who has worked with Kelly Ripa). “They’ll give you plenty of fiber, prebiotics, and probiotics, which help keep your colon clean.” And, like spinach, kale is packed with calcium, which helps your body produce sleep-inducing melatonin, he says.
If you have the option between sauteing the chewy green and eating it raw, Dr. Gioffre recommends opting raw, because the heat may reduce the food’s vitamin C contents.
One caveat: Because leafy greens are so full of slow-digesting fiber, he recommends giving the leaves about three hours to move through your system before shutting your eyes. So, avoid kale on the nights when you plan to snooze immediately after snacking.
Chicken Noodle Soup
The ultimate comfort food, the fact that chicken noodle soup is soothing is exactly what makes it such a good bedtime snack. “Foods that are comforting (such as chicken soup) can help your nervous system to power down and relax to give your whole body a sense of safety,” says acupuncturist and Chinese medicine specialist Tsao-Lin Moy. Plus, soup is easy for the body to digest, he says, so you won’t be kept up with indigestion. If you’re going the store-bought route, opt for a lower-sodium option. Too much salt can keep you wide awake.
So long as they’re not in french fry form, sweet potatoes can help you sleep better! Registered dietitian Lisa Mastela, MPH, RD, founder and CEO of Bumpin Blends explains: “Sweet potatoes contain B6 which boosts mood and melatonin which prepares for sleep, so eating sweet potatoes help you feel both relaxed and sleepy.” Plus, the veggie is fiberlicious, so you don’t have to worry about waking up hungry in the middle of the night. How’s that for a win-win-win?
Yup! Keep whatever’s left of white rice that came complimentary with your last sushi or Chinese food order. Eating it before bed can decrease how long it takes to fall asleep, according to Richards. “White rice is high in carbohydrates, which are thought to promote a sense of fullness and restfulness.” And, it also has a high glycemic index, which is thought to decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, she says.
Just be sure to stick to a one-cup serving. While it can help you snooze, it’s not the healthiest food in the world. One cup has 250 calories, less than 1 gram of fiber per serving, and very little protein.
Forking into a fish dinner before bed is a great way to ensure you’ll get a good night’s rest. Fatty fish such as salmon, herring, and sardines contain both omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, nutrients important for the regulation of serotonin, which regulates sleep, a study in Advances in Nutrition states. Another study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medication investigated the effects of eating fatty fish on slumber and found that those who ate 10.5 ounces of Atlantic salmon three times a week for six months fell asleep about 10 minutes faster than those who didn’t eat fish.
Get under the down comforter with this sleep-inducing food from Down Under. Participants who consumed two kiwifruits 1 hour before bedtime nightly for 4 weeks fell asleep 35 percent faster than those who didn’t eat the New Zealand fruit, a study in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition found. Besides being rich in antioxidants, carotenoids, and vitamins C and E, it also contains a familiar hormone, serotonin. This sleep hormone is related to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and its low levels may cause insomnia. Similarly, kiwi is rich in folate, and insomnia is one of the health issues that are a symptom of folate deficiency.
Sleep is a huge part of making any diet and exercise plan work, as it allows your body to process and to recover from all the sweat and breakdown of muscle. And cherries are the perfect fruit for the job. A study published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that people who drank just one ounce of tart cherry juice a day reported that they slept longer and more soundly than those who didn’t. So what’s going on here? Cherries act as a natural sleep aid thanks to their melatonin content, a naturally produced hormone that signals to our bodies that it’s time for bed. So enjoy a cup of cherries for dessert—they’ll help you maintain your toned physique by replacing less virtuous desserts and moving along your snooze process.
Cereal with skim milk
Although it’s traditionally considered a breakfast option, a low-sugar cereal paired with skim milk is a perfect bedtime snack. Milk contains the amino acid tryptophan, which serves as a precursor for the hormone serotonin, a sleep-inducing agent. (Just make sure your milk is skim. Higher fat whole milk will take your body longer to digest, keeping your body working late rather than snoozing.)
And according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating a high-glycemic carb like jasmine rice (or rice cereal) 4 hours before bed can cut the amount of time it takes to fall asleep in half compared to a low-GI food. This is because high-glycemic carbs, which spike insulin and blood sugar more quickly than low-GI foods, can help increase the ratio of tryptophan circulating in your blood by siphoning off other amino acids to your muscles. This lets the tryptophan outcompete those other amino acids for entrance into your brain, allowing more of the sedative to signal it’s time to put your head to the pillow.
Because they’re an excellent source of both potassium and magnesium, bananas can put your body into a sleepy state by helping with muscle relaxation. In a study in the Journal of Research and Medical Sciences, magnesium had a positive effect on the quality of sleep in older adults with insomnia by extending the time they spent sleeping in bed (rather than just lying there) and making it easier to wake up. Bananas also contain tryptophan, the precursor to calming and sleep-regulating hormones serotonin and melatonin.