Frequently getting out of bed for a late-night slice of cake or bowl of ice cream may not be great for your waistline, but eating late at night isn't always unhealthy. Making healthy food choices at night is important for more than just nutrition, though. The type of meal or snack you choose and when you eat it may affect your alertness or ability to sleep.
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Weight Gain Risks
Regularly eating when your circadian rhythm, or internal body clock, tells your body to sleep could lead to weight gain, suggests a study published in Obesity in 2009. In this study, mice that received high-fat food during their normal sleeping time gained significantly more weight than mice that received the same type and amount of food during normal waking hours. Shift workers' tendency to be overweight helped spur interest in the effect of eating during natural sleeping time, according to the study's lead author, Deanna Arble.
Timing Your Meals and Snacks
Ideally, you should eat at least every four to five hours throughout the day so you're less likely to be hungry at night. Sometimes, though, you may need to eat late to avoid going without food for too long. If you ate dinner at 8 p.m. and plan to stay up until 2 a.m., you'll need a snack or light meal around midnight. Finishing the day's last meal or snack at least two hours before you go to bed gives your body time to digest the food. If your body's digesting food while you sleep, it has less energy to repair and restore itself as it should. This means you may sleep poorly and wake up tired.
Healthy Late-Night Snack Foods
Instead of grazing on sweets, fast food and packaged snacks, have a small balanced meal when you feel hungry at night. Healthy late-night snack options include apple slices or celery sticks with peanut butter, a whole-grain English muffin topped with tomato sauce and cheese, half a sandwich or a small bowl of whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk. If you plan to stay up doing something mentally challenging, like studying, include some protein, such as meat or beans. Protein will help keep you alert.
You may need to make some changes to your late-night eating habits if you often experience insomnia. In this case, just before bedtime, eat a light snack high in carbohydrates, but low in protein. Such foods increase production of the brain chemicals serotonin and melatonin, which are associated with sleep. Granola, whole-grain crackers or toast with jam are good choices. Avoid drinking fluids close to bedtime, though, to reduce the chance you'll need a midnight trip to the bathroom.
- "Obesity;" Circadian Timing of Food Intake Contributes to Weight Gain; Arble, A., et al.; September 2009
- Northwestern University NewsCenter; Late-Night Snacks: Worse Than You Think; Megan Fellman; Sept. 3, 2009
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MITMedical: Late-Night Eating
- University at Buffalo: Wellness Education Services: Late Night Eating and Studying Tips
- University of Maryland Medical Center; Insomnia; Dec. 13, 2009