We’ve all experienced it — you’re about to call it a night (maybe you’ve even already crawled into bed!) when your stomach enters the conversation with a loud rumbling and grumbling that’s definitely saying, “feed me!” Now what? Maybe you’ve heard warnings that pre-bed snacking will mess with your sleep or cause you to gain unwanted weight, or perhaps you’re all aboard the bedtime snack train but aren’t quite sure what to eat.
First things first: snacking before bed is perfectly fine, says Jaclyn London, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., an NYC-based registered dietitian, author of Dressing on the Side (and Other Diet Myths Debunked), and host of the podcast, On the Side with Jackie London. In fact, it’s pretty natural. “It’s totally normal to feel hungry at different times of day or night when you’ve gone a few hours without food or water,” London says.
Phew! But wait, don’t head to the kitchen just yet. London suggests asking yourself these quick questions to try to find the reason “why” you’re hungry — small changes to your ordinary routine can impact your appetite or desire to graze. This won’t necessarily inform what bedtime snack you create, but it can help pinpoint things that may cause your snacking to become a regular thing.
- Did I eat and drink enough for today?! “If you recently changed (leveled up) your physical activity schedule, this could be a likely cause of your late-night hunger because your body now needs more fuel,” says London. Eating a smaller lunch than usual or skipping breakfast or your usual 3 p.m. trail mix could also be to blame; not sipping enough water throughout the day could mean you’re actually dehydrated, and it’s masquerading as hunger.
- Are my meals/snacks satisfying? “In both research and private practice, I’ve seen this pattern come up frequently, where we’re eating and feel physically full, but not all that satisfied — almost like we feel like we have two stomachs because nothing is satisfying,” London says. One key to satiety (besides seeking out flavors that excite you), is to ensure each meal contains protein and fiber, which helps you feel full for longer.
- How often am I eating? “I generally recommend eating every three to four hours,” says London. This should help keep blood sugar levels balanced, so you feel energized and can ward off that “hangry” feeling.
Focus on these nutrients to build a healthy late-night snack:
- Strive for a combo of carbs and protein to promote satiety and support serotonin production, a brain chemical that works hand-in-hand with sleep-promoting melatonin.
- Choose options that are lower in total fat. “I say that because while all types of fat (but especially unsaturated ones that you find in olive oil or avocado!) have a place in your other meals and snacks throughout the day, laying down after a high-fat meal, even just a snack, can disrupt the digestion process, which may lead to GI symptoms like acid reflux or bloating,” says London.
- Consider some hydrating foods. “I recommend drinking a cup or two of water before taking action in the fridge,” says London, but you can also ensure it’s not dehydration tricking your appetite by reaching for a hydrating food as your bedtime snack. “These provide a little bit of extra H2O and some key minerals that support the production of neurotransmitters involved with sleep and also support muscle and nerve function and blood pressure regulation – your chances of getting better ZZZs are better when all these things are functioning properly.”
Feeling peckish? Next time it happens before bed, try one of these healthy late-night snacks.
100% Whole Grain Cereal and Nonfat Milk
This is a winning late-night snack: the carbohydrates in cereal help you fall asleep, and protein-rich milk helps you stay asleep, says London. And when these two nutrients combine, you’re able to absorb more of the amino acid tryptophan (usually associated with being the cause of that post–Thanksgiving meal slump) than you would if you ate them separately. “Plus, milk is chock-full of calcium and magnesium, which help you produce melatonin—the hormone responsible for sleep regulation,” London adds. Her portion suggestion: no more than 1 cup of a low-sugar cereal (6g of sugar or less per serving) with ½ cup of skim milk.
Greek Yogurt and Melon
Since dehydration can throw your hunger signals for a loop and affect your ability to fall and stay asleep, choosing a high-water-volume fruit, like melon, can make up for any missing drinks during the day, and the protein in Greek yogurt (choose low-fat plain, unsweetened) will also help you remain in dreamland. “Melon and dairy products is just a tad reminiscent of ‘dieting’ in the 1980s, so you have my blessing to try other fruits, too: apples, oranges, pears, persimmon, passion fruit, and pomegranate are all potassium-packed, hydrating options, too!” says London. Potassium will help those fluid levels stay balanced while you snooze.
Pistachios and Dried Tart Cherries
This is the conk-out combo of your dreams, and it’s light enough to prevent you from being too full or bloated to nod off. “Pistachios have a winning sleep-inducing combination of protein, vitamin B6 and magnesium, and dried cherries have been linked to increased melatonin production, which can help you chill out so you can get some sleep,” says London. Aim for about ¼ cup of each so you’re not going to bed feeling stuffed.
Cheese and Crackers
If you remember begging for a bedtime snack as a kid, it’s only fitting that this childhood favorite fits the bill. Pick a lower-sodium cheese like Emmentaler Swiss to keep salt and saturated fat in check (too much of both can keep you up), and pair it with around 15 small crackers (again, opt for a lower sodium version with less than 200 mg per serving so you’re not guzzling water all night, London suggests). Bonus points for choosing a whole grain cracker to further summon sleep.
Nut Butter and Banana
Bananas and nut butter pack a big punch of two sleep promoting nutrients — vitamin B6 and magnesium — making them ideal for pre-sleep snacking, says London. Stick to a tablespoon of nut butter to avoid feeling too full, and try to remain upright for about thirty minutes to give your digestive system time to start working.
Toast and Cottage Cheese
Pop a slice of your favorite whole grain toast (even cinnamon raisin is fine if it’s made with whole grains), and top it with a dollop of low-fat cottage cheese (or part-skim ricotta if you have that on hand instead). You can even add a couple slices of hydrating tomato, radish, or cucumber and sprinkle of sesame seeds, za’atar or everything bagel seasoning to jazz it up and make it an even better late-night snack.
Herbal Tea and Graham Crackers
“Okay, stick with me here! This combo goes a long way,” says London. “Try chamomile or any other herbal blend that soothes you; this primes your mind for sleep by relaxing you. Then grab something to munch on, like one or two whole grain graham cracker sheets or an oat-based breakfast biscuit or bar to get other vitamins and minerals that help you power down.”
Scrambled Egg and Whole Grain Toast
If you’re a “breakfast anytime” type of person, go ahead and scramble up one egg and enjoy it with one slice of whole grain toast. The protein in the egg and the carbs in the toast join forces to support the production of important sleep-inducing brain chemicals and hormones.
Waffle and Ricotta
Using your freezer timesavers isn’t lazy, it’s genius. “Toast one frozen waffle (extra credit for choosing a whole grain option!) and top it with a scoop of part-skim ricotta cheese and an optional drizzle of honey or maple syrup,” says London. It’s a dessert and a healthy late-night snack all in one!
Cheddar Cheese and Apple
The protein will satisfy you without filling you up too much, and the fiber in apples supports good digestion, something that goes a long way in you getting quality sleep.
Herbal Tea Latte
If you suspect you’re more thirsty than hungry but still want a little something before bed, why not sip on something comforting and slightly satiating. Brew up your favorite herbal tea and swirl in 1 cup of warmed milk (if you drink dairy-free milk, choose an unsweetened option). It’ll relax you as it slightly fills your belly.
Oatmeal and Banana
It’s not just for breakfast — 1/2 cup of plain oatmeal topped with a few slices of banana (and optional small sprinkle of nuts) is the perfect way to end your night. It’ll satisfy your need for a sweet treat without sabotaging your sleep.
Frozen Fruit and Yogurt
DIY yourself a frozen-ish yogurt — top a handful of frozen fruit with a small scoop of plain yogurt or blend them together if you’re up for it. It’s a tasty way to get that sleep-friendly hit of protein.
If you make your own granola, munch on a small bowl of it for some protein and carbs before bed. Or, try a low-sugar packaged granola like this new one from Alter Eco (just 3g of sugar and no added sugar!) or a low-sugar breakfast bar like the ones by KIND.
Hummus and Dippers
Don’t forget to brush your teeth well after this one! A small portion of hummus paired with a few whole grain crackers or pita chips and a couple veggie sticks is a light mix of protein and carbs.
Alyssa is a senior editor for the Hearst Lifestyle Group Health Newsroom, supporting Prevention, Good Housekeeping, and Woman’s Day. She previously worked at Reader’s Digest, where she was Research chief, responsible for the health vertical of their site, and edited health content for the print product and special projects. She has also freelanced for Chowhound, HealthiNation.com, Huffington Post, and more.
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