Maybe you're hoping to curb your late-night hunger cravings on a weight loss diet, or you're trying to eat more protein to fuel your overnight muscle recovery. Either way, choosing to eat healthy protein snacks before bed can help you feel full at night and energized in the morning.
Eating a healthy protein snack before bed can help you lose weight, curb late-night hunger pangs, build muscle and speed up post-exercise recovery. Aim to eat lean meats, seafood, low-fat dairy, protein powders and plant-based proteins like soy, legumes or whole wheat grains as a snack before bed.
A Healthy Protein Diet
The "don't eat after 7 p.m." rule may not work for everyone. For those who are afraid of eating anything after dinner, even when the hunger pangs are real, research shows that in some cases, it may be beneficial.
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In one small January 2014 study with 11 participants published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that eating protein or carbohydrates at night (in particular, whey or casein protein) increased morning resting energy in active young men. It also improved their metabolism.
Another small May 2018 study published in the American Journal of Physiology measured whether eating 30 grams of casein protein, with or without leucine (an amino acid) before bed affected post-exercise recovery overnight. In that study, 36 young men went through a resistance exercise in the evening. They then ate 30 grams of casein protein a half an hour before bed.
When measuring the participants' blood and muscle tissue samples, the researchers analyzed their protein net balance and protein synthesis rate. They found that late-night protein intake improved whole body protein balance, and the amino acids were incorporated into muscle cells.
While whole body protein balance increased overnight, the study concluded that more evidence is needed to prove that these changes result in overall muscle gain. However, a March 2019 study published in Frontiers in Nutrition found that eating protein before bed actually did stimulate muscle protein synthesis overnight, which led to muscle gain.
If you're hoping to increase your protein intake for a bodybuilding diet, eating some amount of protein before bed may be helpful. The key is to focus on healthy, low-fat proteins. Instead of binging on macaroni and cheese or ordering a late-night cheeseburger, you can curb your cravings by maintaining a convenient stash of low-fat, high-protein options you can whip up quickly before bed.
Read more: 10 High-Protein Snacks You Can Eat on the Go
Healthy Late Night Snacks
It's common knowledge that the best food to eat at night to lose weight or build lean body mass certainly won't be anything too high in carbohydrates, fat or sugar. If your typical bedtime snack is sugary cereal with milk, a big bowl of pasta, cookies and milk or a grilled cheese sandwich, it may be time to reorganize your diet priorities.
One great night protein food lies in lean, low-fat animal-based proteins like poultry and fish. In addition to providing you with the nine essential amino acids, which are usually only found in meat and fish, these foods can give you plenty of other nutrients like iodine, iron, zinc and B12 vitamins, according to the Australian Government Department of Health.
Some of the best food to eat at night to lose weight or increase your muscle mass is salmon, which is high in both protein and omega-3 fatty acids. A 6-ounce piece of cooked sockeye salmon, for example, contains 45 grams of protein.
According to the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, eating 2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids (or about one to two servings of fatty fish) per week has been shown to reduce the risk of dying from heart disease by one-third. Salmon has also been associated with a reduced risk of stroke, depression and Alzheimer's disease.
Whether you're eating a full piece or a few bites as a snack, grilled chicken can also be a great night protein food. Grilled chicken is high in protein and very low in fat, which makes it an ideal food for weight loss and muscle toning.
Eggs are another excellent source of energy before bed. Pair some hard-boiled eggs with avocado whole wheat toast to get protein, a bit of healthy fat and healthy grains to fuel your energy in the morning.
Read more: Healthy Peanut Butter Snacks
While your instinct may be to run from dairy when you're on a weight loss program, certain kinds of dairy can actually be incredibly healthy and helpful for your fitness plan. Dairy products like milk, cheese or yogurt provide you with loads of nutrients such as calcium, idoine, protein, vitamins A and D, zinc and vitamin B12.
However, make sure you focus on nutritional, low-fat dairy options like sugar-free yogurt and cottage cheese. Slices of processed cheese or loads of butter may not be the best food to eat at night to lose weight.
Greek yogurt with chia seeds, for example, can provide you with a great boost of protein before bed without being too heavy on your stomach. And chia seeds, though small, are filled with an impressive amount of nutrients like fiber, protein, calcium and magnesium.
Cottage cheese is the lesser-known low-fat dairy option that rivals yogurt. You can eat it with toast, fruit or by itself, or add it into some whole grain oatmeal to fill your stomach before going to sleep.
A small November 2018 study with 10 participants published in the British Journal of Nutrition tested how cottage cheese consumption before sleep could help resting energy, appetite and metabolism. The researchers found that eating casein protein (a slow-digesting dairy protein found in cottage cheese) was beneficial to the participants' metabolism and muscle growth.
Nuts and Plant-Based Protein
You don't have to get all your protein snacks from animal-based foods, however. The good thing is that there are plenty of plant-based protein options that can be just as nutritious and filling as animal-based proteins, as long as you eat enough of a variety.
If you want to create a protein shake before bed, you can aim for the typical whey protein, but you can also find soy- and pea-based protein powders. Mixing pea protein powder with bananas, almond milk, blueberries, kale or avocado can give you a low-carb, low-fat snack before bed that will sustain your body's need for protein.
The other top protein foods that come from plants are soy products like tofu and edamame, as well as legumes and beans. If mixed and matched properly, you can get nearly all of the essential nine amino acids from legumes like lentils, black beans and chickpeas, as well as soy products and whole grains.
Finally, one of the easiest healthy protein snacks before bed are nuts or nut butters. Nuts contain healthy fats, fiber and small amounts of protein, according to Harvard Health. This makes them a nice option to curb your hunger at night if you don't want to eat a full meal.
A piece of whole wheat toast with almond butter and raspberries, or one banana chopped up with peanut butter, are both filling snacks before bed. Nut butters can also easily be added into protein shakes or smoothies to increase your protein intake.
- British Journal of Nutrition: "Night-Time Consumption of Protein or Carbohydrate Results in Increased Morning Resting Energy Expenditure in Active College-Aged Men"
- American Journal of Physiology: "Presleep Dietary Protein-Derived Amino Acids Are Incorporated in Myofibrillar Protein During Postexercise Overnight Recovery"
- Frontiers in Nutrition: "The Impact of Pre-sleep Protein Ingestion on the Skeletal Muscle Adaptive Response to Exercise in Humans: An Update"
- Australian Government Department of Health: "Lean Meat and Poultry, Fish, Eggs, Tofu, Nuts and Seeds and Legumes/Beans"
- MyFoodData.com: "Nutrition Facts for Cooked Sockeye Salmon"
- Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health: "Fish: Friend or Foe?"
- Australian Government Department of Health: "Milk, Yoghurt, Cheese and/or Their Alternatives (Mostly Reduced Fat)
- British Journal of Nutrition: "Pre-Sleep Protein in Casein Supplement or Whole-Food Form Has No Impact on Resting Energy Expenditure or Hunger in Women"
- Harvard Health: "Why Nutritionists Are Crazy About Nuts"