While most midnight snacking fare includes "junk" foods like chips or fast food -- which typically won't help you with weight control -- a late-night snack that includes a quality source of protein and carbohydrates may actually help boost your calorie burn for the day. If you live an active lifestyle and choose a healthy, modestly portioned snack to eat before bed and you count your snack toward your daily calorie intake, you might give your metabolism a slight boost and also aid muscle repair.
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Midnight Snacks Get a Bad Rap
Many diet plans recommend you not eat at night, warning that it'll undermine your weight-loss efforts. That's because most late-night eating involves nutrient-poor, high-calorie foods, which can cause you to overeat. Snacking on buttered popcorn in front of a midnight flick, for example, or indulging in a pint of ice cream in front of infomercials will often push you over your calorie limit for the day, triggering weight gain.
However, most of the research that supports the negative aspects of late-night eating has been done on people who are shift workers or those who have night-eating syndromes, not on the broad range of people who benefit from a healthy diet. Much of the other research on late-night eating focuses on people who combine eating the bulk of their calories late at night with erratic sleep patterns. This is also not necessarily reflective of the general population. So while the results from this research are useful, they don't necessarily reflect how a late-night snack might affect you.
Possible Metabolic Effects of Late-Night Snacks
Late-night snacking doesn't have to cause weight gain. A small snack of about 150 calories consumed just before bed could potentially raise your morning metabolism, according to a 2014 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition. In the study, active, college-aged men who consumed a drink containing whey protein, casein or carbohydrates just before sleep experienced a boost in their metabolism the next morning, compared to participants who consumed a placebo with no calories.
These results also suggest that a regular high-protein midnight snack -- eaten just before you go to sleep -- might help with muscle growth and maintenance and with fat loss in healthy, active individuals.
In another 2014 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, a small whey or casein protein snack before sleep helped curb morning hunger, but didn't have a noticeable effect on metabolism and may negatively affect insulin levels in obese women. A 2015 study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism showed that adding three exercise sessions per week that involved resistance training and high-intensity interval training nullified the negative insulin responses of the women.
Protein-Rich, Late-Night Snacks
Choose complete proteins as a midnight snack because they offer the greatest benefits to your metabolism and to your hunger level. A complete protein contains all the essential amino acids your body can't produce on its own. Examples include dairy-derived whey or casein protein, meat, fish, soy, eggs and poultry. A small amount of quality carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits or vegetables, rounds out the snack. Keep portions to around 150 calories.
Examples of healthy, midnight snacks include a hard-boiled egg with an apple; a scoop of whey protein mixed into low-fat milk; 1/2 cup of low-fat cottage cheese with blueberries; or plain Greek yogurt mixed with a drizzle of honey and chopped strawberries.
Adopt Less Rigid Eating Habits
Rigid eating habits that cut you off from all food at a specific time aren't necessary to maintain a healthy weight, as long as you're staying within your calorie limits. If you're truly hungry at midnight, indulge in a small, protein-rich snack without guilt.
Waking up at midnight to eat a snack just because it could offer a mild boost to your metabolism is unnecessary. Also remember that any snack you do eat late figures into your daily calorie tally. If you start enjoying a midnight snack on top of your regular meal plan, those extra calories will transform into extra pounds.