Bedtime snacks are a cherished tradition in many cultures, but as with so many other things, people take a good idea and run wild with it. A piece of cheese and a handful of nuts are a healthy, nutritious snack. An entire bag of crunchy cheese curls is not, and that is true even if you're ignoring the mountains of neon orange dust you'll end up with on your sheets, on your skin and possibly on any nearby pets or loved ones.
Eating before bed serves several purposes, both good and not so good. Food is soothing and can connect you to your culture or family traditions. It's easier for some people to fall asleep with a full belly. A little screen time before bed is more fun with a snack. That refrigerator won't clean itself out.
The key to a successful bedtime snack is to keep it simple and keep it pure. A small serving of cottage cheese, with or without fruit or other natural and delicious toppings provides protein and other nutrients in a creamy, low-calorie treat that will send you off to dreamland without a load of guilt.
A small serving of cottage cheese before bed offers protein to help your body repair and build muscle and keeps you from waking up starving.
Protein Is Your Friend
Eating a diet that is high in protein is one of the best ways to keep your body healthy and strong. Protein is made up of amino acids, explain the experts at Piedmont Health. Amino acids are commonly referred to as the building blocks of life because they come in all shapes and sizes and can be combined, broken down and recombined in an almost endless variety of configurations, depending on how your body needs to use them.
Amino acids are not only used to build muscle, they also build bones, cartilage, hair, nails and skin. Protein creates the enzymes that digest your food, carry oxygen throughout your bloodstream and help regulate hormones as well as building and repairing tissue.
The other benefit of protein, and one which is particularly useful at night, is that it takes longer to digest than carbohydrates do. This means that you will feel satisfied and full for longer than if you end your day with a doughnut or some chips.
Snacking for the Win
Late-night snacking has gotten a bad reputation because some people believe that your body burns no calories while at rest. This is not true, according to the medical experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Your metabolism does slow down during sleep, but your body is still working to repair tissue, and your metabolic functions such as breathing and blood circulation are certainly still at work.
The other myth that MIT is happy to bust is the idea that anything you eat after a certain time of day will inevitably turn to fat. The truth is that if your total caloric intake is more than the calories you burn, you will gain weight. If you take in fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. It is a little more complicated than that because the calories' ratio of fat, protein and carbohydrates also matters, but what does not matter is what time of day you eat.
Losing and Maintaining Weight
It seems to make sense not to eat just before bed because the more you move around after eating, the more calories you burn. But that's not how it works. According to the health enthusiasts at Columbia University's Go Ask Alice! advice site, weight is not lost or gained every single day. Those changes happen over days, weeks and even months.
That is one reason that losing weight and keeping it off can be so frustrating. It requires thinking long term, whereas far too many people want quick results. Weighing yourself every day can contribute to that frustration, because salt and starchy carbs can cause you to retain water, making those numbers on the scale go up when you haven't actually stored that many pounds of fat.
Another factor that many people do not take into account is the effect that lack of sleep has on weight gain. The experts at Tufts University remind you that people who do not get more than five or six hours of sleep every night tend to take in 50 more calories per day than people who get more sleep. Those calories can add up very quickly, especially if they are coming from unhealthy midnight snacks, which are loaded with sugar and fat or are consumed with alcohol.
What Not to Do
The fact that snacking at night does not make you gain weight any faster than snacking or eating at any other time of the day doesn't mean you can chow down on a whole pint of ice cream or leftover pizza and not gain an ounce. Contrary to popular wisdom and advocates for calorie counting, the kind of calories you take in actually does matter.
According to researchers at the University at Buffalo, one of the least effective things you can do in terms of your diet is to drink alcohol late in the evening. Aside from the fact that alcohol lowers inhibitions and impairs your ability to make smart decisions, all forms of alcohol that you drink is are loaded with sugar.
When you take in too much sugar, your body sends out insulin to mop it up. The resulting drop in blood sugar can cause your brain to signal hunger, especially if you have been drinking on an empty stomach. Drunk munchies, or "drunchies" do not usually call for the kind of healthy bedtime snacks bodybuilding types prefer but rather for a giant burrito, a bag of chips, some fully loaded nachos or anything else that is salty, full of fat, delicious and very bad for you.
Greek Yogurt Before Bed?
If you are looking for a protein-packed, creamy snack before bed, cottage cheese is probably not the first thing to come to mind unless you gravitate toward bodybuilding late night snack fare such as that. Reaching for low-fat or nonfat cottage cheese can seem even less tempting when you know that removing even some of the fat also removes a lot of the luscious creaminess.
Greek yogurt is sweeter, creamier and requires no additives if you buy it already flavored or blended with fruit or other flavors such as honey. But when comparing them side by side, experts at the University of California-Davis found that while a 3.5-ounce serving of Greek yogurt offers 8.7 grams of protein and 4.1 grams of fat, the same amount of full-fat cottage cheese has 11.5 grams of protein and only a tiny bit more fat at 4.3 grams.
Reasons for Choosing Cottage Cheese
Choosing cottage cheese for your bedtime snack makes sense for a whole variety of reasons, from the protein and nutrition to the creaminess and fresh flavor. In addition, researchers at Florida State University have discovered that people who eat at least 30 grams, or a little bit more than 1 ounce of protein about 30 minutes to an hour before going to bed experienced better metabolism, muscle quality and overall health than people who did not.
Even better, the people in the study who ate their cottage cheese before bed gained all of these benefits without also experiencing weight gain. This study, published in the November 18 issue of the British Journal of Nutrition, is one that used an actual food that people eat rather than going straight to protein powders or other supplements, making it more relevant to real life.
In addition, cottage cheese requires little to no preparation, keeps well in the refrigerator and is even offered in one-serving containers or with fruit already added. It is also relatively inexpensive and you can choose full fat, low-fat or nonfat. You even get to choose the size of the curds, and if you are a huge fan of the do-it-yourself mindset, you can easily make your own by adding an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar to milk and gathering the curds when the milk separates.
Cool Cottage Cheese Snacks
There are many different ways to enjoy cottage cheese, whether you prefer it cold or hot, savory or sweet. The simplest way is to just grab a spoon or fork and scoop it up as is. Adding a touch of salt and a generous sprinkle of pepper helps out bring out its natural creamy flavor.
Any type of fruit goes well with cottage cheese, though the classic add-ins are pineapple or berries. Or go back to the 1950s and have your cottage cheese inside the hollow of a poached pear or on a bed of sliced peaches. Honey gives cottage cheese a bit of sweetness as does maple syrup. Add a sprinkle of cinnamon to kick the flavor up a notch.
Warm Cottage Cheese Snacks
Mix in chopped green onion and pecans with a dash of hot sauce and either eat it that way or pop spoonfuls on top of whole grain crackers such as woven wheat ones. Count out the number of crackers your calorie count for the day can accommodate, so you don't accidentally overindulge.
Spread cottage cheese on toasted whole grain bread, drizzle it with honey and run it under the broiler for a creamy, crunchy, guilt-free treat. This is also a good choice for breakfast because it gives you all the flavor of a breakfast pastry without the starchy carbs.
- Piedmont Healthcare: Why Is Protein Important in Your Diet?
- Massachusetts Institutes of Technology: Late-Night Eating
- Tufts University: Sleep and Weight Gain
- Columbia University: Go Ask Alice! Eating at Night = Weight Gain: Myth or Fact?
- University at Buffalo: Got the ‘Drunchies’? New Study Shows How Heavy Drinking Affects Diet
- University of California-Davis: Cottage Cheese vs. Yogurt: Are We Missing Some Benefits?
- Florida State University: Late Night Snacker? Make It Cottage Cheese
- SELF: 19 Healthy Fats and High-Fat Foods You Should Be Eating
- 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