When your stomach starts to grumble during a late-night television marathon, you may wonder if it’s worth grabbing a snack before the next episode. Though you’ve probably heard the old diet trick that says you should never eat after six or late at night, a healthy late-night snack is definitely an okay thing to have, says Abby Langer, R.D., owner of Abby Langer Nutrition and author of Good Food, Bad Diet.
First, be sure to check in with yourself to ensure you’re not just eating out of hunger, boredom, or the power of suggestion (that fast food ad between Hulu episodes looked really tasty). “It’s very important to listen to your body and nourish it properly,” says Andrea Mathis, R.D.N., L.D., an Alabama-based dietitian and author of The Complete Book of Smoothies. “Depending on your activity level or your body’s current state, you may need to consume more or less calories. Listening to your body and following those hunger cues will help to provide your body with proper nourishment.”
If you’re finding that you’re simply stressed or bored, try to turn to an alternative coping mechanism, like taking a walk or relaxing bath, Mathis says. You may also want to check in with how much you’re hydrating and ensure you’re not just a little thirsty, she adds. “A growling or empty feeling in the stomach is often related to hunger, but someone can also experience a headache or fatigue which can be a symptom of hunger or mild dehydration,” Mathis says. “To prevent this confusion, be sure to keep yourself hydrated throughout the day, and before you grab those late-night snacks.”
And if your stomach is grumbling and you’re actually hungry, don’t deny your natural need for food. “I might not eat an entire meal late at night, but I’d never tell someone to go to bed hungry,” Langer says. Even if you ate a full dinner, it’s completely possible that your body is actually hungry and needs some extra fuel to keep you going. Staying up later than usual means your body is working and using energy, so you may need more calories than you’re used to, says Jessica Levinson, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., author of the 52-Week Meal Planner: The Complete Guide to Planning Menus, Groceries, Recipes, and More.
What makes a healthy late night snack?
It’s essential to choose a late night snack that is rich in nutrients and provides some value and energy for you to use, Levinson says. Excess calories from non-nutrient dense foods are likely to be stored because your metabolism slows at night, she adds. Aim for a snack that has a mix of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats to promote fullness, suggests Langer. “Recent research shows that protein-rich snacks in the evening are superior to those that are mostly carb, simply because protein has the least effect on our protein and lipid metabolism at that hour of the day,” she says. Additionally, be sure to include some extra fiber in your snack, notes Mathis. A balance of protein, fiber, and healthy fat ensures that your blood sugar levels will stay stable and hold you over until the morning.
And before you reach for that high-fat food, spicy snack, or sip of alcohol, Langer suggests reevaluating that decision as these foods are known to disrupt sleep. Plus, beware of any foods hiding caffeine, like coffee-infused foods, Mathis adds. Reach for any of these dietitian-approved foods instead (and be sure to see our Healthy Food Awards for more great ideas!)