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Always hungry before bed? How midnight snacking can affect your health and what to do when cravings hit

Brooke Helton,Samantha Cassetty   

Always hungry before bed? How midnight snacking can affect your health and what to do when cravings hit
  • Late-night eating can affect hunger hormones and blood sugar and potentially disrupt your sleep.
  • But eating certain foods, like tart cherries, plain yogurt, and nuts, could promote restful sleep.

Chances are, you've made a few midnight raids on the fridge — most people have. But is there any harm in making your nighttime snack a regular habit? Even experts haven't found a clear answer to that question.

"The effects of nighttime eating can differ based on personal characteristics and on the type and amount of food being consumed," says Dr. Sarah Musleh, endocrinologist at Anzara Health — so, it's hard to provide a simple answer, like "It's good" or "It's bad."

According to Musleh, some research connects nighttime eating to potentially negative health effects, such as:

But if you can't sleep on an empty stomach, here's some good news: Some evidence suggests what you eat matters more than the timing.

Below, you'll find four important things to keep in mind about late-night eating, along with tips on snacking wisely throughout the day to reduce nighttime hunger.

1. What you eat and drink before bed

Some foods and beverages may have more of an impact on your sleep and digestion than others:

To sum up, a bedtime latte with a side of spicy chips might not be the best choice when you feel like a quick snack before bed.

2. The amount of food you eat

Beyond the type of food you eat, portion size can also make a difference in the effects of late-night eating.

A bigger snack before bed can raise your blood sugar — and higher blood sugar levels may contribute to insomnia.

"Our body was not designed to digest large meals during sleep, particularly carbohydrates and sugar," says Carleara Weiss, member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and sleep educator at Aeroflow Sleep. Heavy meals take more effort for your body to digest, which Weiss says could impair your sleep if eaten too close to bedtime.

In short, a four-course pantry buffet just before bed could leave you lying awake instead of getting the rest you need.

Quick tip: Sticking to smaller snack portions, like a handful of nuts with a glass of milk, could satisfy you without making you feel too full to sleep.

3. When you eat your food

The timing of your nighttime snack also plays a key role, thanks to your circadian rhythm.

The circadian rhythm is an internal process that controls your sleep-wake cycle. Think of it like your body's 24-hour clock. Typically, it's synched up with the day-night cycle, so you feel sleepy at night and awake during the day. But eating too close to bed might throw you off your rhythm.

"Eating close to bedtime, regardless of the food of choice, will disrupt the circadian rhythm because our digestion needs to slow down during sleep," Weiss says.

For that reason, it may help to stop eating within a set window before bed — though the exact time you'll want to have your last meal of the day depends on your individual bedtime.

Quick tip: Weiss recommends eating your last meal or snack two to three hours before bed. This will give your body enough time to properly digest your food and transition into sleep mode. So, if you typically hop into bed at 10 pm, aim to close up the kitchen no later than 8 pm.

4. The amount of physical activity you've had

The last piece of the puzzle is physical activity, though experts continue to study the link between exercise and hunger.

Some research suggests a more intense workout might suppress your hunger hormones, which could mean a hard workout during the day may leave you less hungry at night.

That said, Tom Holland, exercise physiologist and fitness expert, emphasizes that experts have found mixed results on the effects of exercise on hunger:

In short, there's no conclusive answer, but some trial and error can help you find out what works for you: Experts recommend exercising for around 150 minutes every week, if you're able — around 30 minutes a day, five days per week.

Holland says the best time to work out for better sleep can also vary. Some older evidence suggests that intense exercise before bed could disrupt sleep, yet other research suggests people who exercise late in the day may enjoy deeper, more restful sleep.

"The key is to listen to your body and determine how exercise affects you personally, then adjust accordingly," Holland says.

Quick tip: If you're prone to feeling hungrier after exercise, Holland recommends refueling with a snack containing complex carbs and protein, like a protein bar or shake. If you work out later in the day, refueling with a sleep-boosting snack could also improve your rest.

How to avoid nighttime snacking

Paying attention to your daytime routine can help you stave off nighttime hunger. For example, you might try:

  • Eating earlier in the day: Aim to eat the majority of your calories earlier in the day, if possible. If your only opportunity to eat dinner is right before bed, Musleh recommends focusing on meals high in fiber and whole grains in a moderate amount — like a quinoa salad, or brown rice and chicken. "That's better than having pizza or a bowl of white pasta and going to bed," she says.
  • Structured meals and snacks: When you feel hungry between meals, opt for nourishing snacks, such as Greek yogurt and berries or apples and cheese. Having regular snacks can make it easier to get the nutrients you need during the day, which may help you feel less ravenous in the evening.
  • Staying hydrated: Experts recommend drinking about one gallon of water throughout the day. Drinking water isn't just important for your health, it can also help your stomach feel full. If you think you're hungry at night, you might actually be thirsty instead — so consider drinking a cup of water or herbal tea before heading for the pantry.
  • Getting restful sleep: Some studies suggest a lack of sleep might affect your appetite-regulating hormones. When you regularly get seven to eight hours of sleep each night, you may be less likely to overeat the next day.

What to eat when you get hungry before bed

If you need to eat something before bed, it could help to choose foods associated with better sleep, Lustig says. Examples include:

Insider's takeaway

No conclusive evidence suggests eating at night is automatically harmful to your health — but eating certain foods before bed may disrupt your sleep.

In general, experts recommend eating your last meal or snack at least two to three hours before bed to give your body time to digest. If you can't skip your nighttime snack, opting for one with more sleep-friendly compounds could make a difference — for instance, kiwi and plain yogurt instead of a candy bar or jalapeno nachos.

Making a few adjustments to your daytime meals and snacks could also help prevent late-night hunger pangs in the first place.

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