The period of time between dinner and bedtime is the danger zone for many. It's the time of day you get to relax, and many people reach for a favorite snack to enhance the simple pleasure of doing nothing. While eating a healthy, balanced snack before bed can actually improve your sleep capabilities and overall wellness, eating too much or certain foods before bed can pose problems.
The biggest myth surrounding nighttime eating is that eating too close to bedtime makes you gain weight. This is not true. Eating more calories than you burn makes you gain weight, whether you eat them early or late. Of course, many people who snack before bed choose high-calorie foods such as ice cream or potato chips, but it's the calorie content of these foods, not the time they were eaten, that causes weight gain. And overeating at night can disrupt sleep, increasing your appetite the next day. To dodge these risks, aim for healthy, balanced meals and snacks throughout each day. If you're hungry or restless before bed, go with a healthy option, such as oatmeal or a banana with almond butter.
If you have a difficult time falling asleep or staying asleep, pay attention to your eating habits before reaching for the sleeping pills. If your last meal was hours ago, hunger pangs may keep you awake. In this case, a modest-size, filling snack, such as fiber-rich cereal with milk, before bed, may help you sleep better. On the other hand, going to bed immediately after a big meal can interrupt sleep as well -- the bloated feeling may keep you from falling asleep, and digestive upsets can wake you up later in the night. Spicy and fatty foods can trigger heartburn, another sleep disrupter. Foods that promote relaxation contain carbohydrates and protein, says the National Sleep Foundation. Nutritious examples include whole-grain toast with lean turkey or peanut butter and low-fat yogurt with fruit.
Diabetics can find themselves on the fence about snacks before bed. Eating the wrong thing too close to bedtime can lead to high blood sugar in the morning, but not eating anything before bed can lead to morning hypoglycemia. If you feel hungry late at night, but have eaten enough, eat a low-calorie, sugar-free snack such as gelatin or baby carrots. If you're just feeling "snacky," chew sugar-free gum or suck on sugar-free hard candy. These options give you flavor to satisfy your cravings while having a negligible impact on your body. For a more satisfying option, have a protein-rich food, such as cottage cheese, with a fiber-rich carbohydrate source, such as a small serving of whole-grain crackers. If you eat late at night to avoid having low blood sugar in the morning, talk to your doctor about adjusting your medication to avoid this situation.
GERD and Acid Reflux
If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition marked by frequent acid reflux, the American Academy of Otolaryngology recommends avoiding food for three hours before bed to allow digestion to get under way before you lie down. Acid reflux occurs when the sphincter at the bottom end of the esophagus doesn't constrict properly, allowing stomach acids to rise -- you experience this process as heartburn. Sitting up uses gravity to help keep the acid down, but lying down to sleep allows it to flow unrestricted, making symptoms worse. By allowing the three-hour time span between food and bed, you give your stomach time to get on with its work and settle down. By the time you recline for the night, most of the acid activity should have died down and you should experience fewer symptoms. Sleeping with your head slightly elevated also helps force the acid to fight against gravity while you sleep.
- American Council on Exercise: Diet Myths Debunked
- Harvard University: Twelve Simple Tips to Improve Your Sleep
- Go Ask Alice: Eating at Night = Weight Gain: Myth or Fact?
- American Academy of Otolaryngology: Fact Sheet: Gastroesophageal Reflux (GERD)
- American Academy of Otolaryngology: Fact Sheet: Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease