Fortunately, the reality isn't quite so black and white. There are people for whom eating before bed is not so advisable, and those for which it is actually prescribed. And then, of course, what you're eating matters a whole lot, too.
If your goal is weight management, you shouldn't actually be too worried about the timing of your caloric consumption, says Whitney English Tabaie, RDN, author of The Plant-Based Baby and Toddler: Your Complete Feeding Guide for 6 months to 3 years. "A calorie is a calorie. It doesn't matter when it is eaten, a calorie has the same energy potential and contributes the same to your total daily intake," she explains. With that said, holistic dietitian Tamar Samuels, RD, CDN, points out that if the snack is putting you over your daily targets, then it could be detrimental to weight management efforts.
Blood sugar issues are something to keep in mind when you're debating a bedtime snack, too. "Some people have low blood sugar, which can cause panic attacks, anxiety, and rapid heart rate," says Samuels. "Eating before bed can actually be really helpful for this demographic, to make sure their blood sugar doesn't get too low." This can also be true, she adds, for people who have type 1 diabetes: "They may need to have a snack before bed to ensure that their blood sugar doesn't get too low overnight, because they're relying on insulin outside of the body to regulate their blood sugar."
If you're pregnant, bedtime snacking may be advisable for the same reason—it helps to regulate your blood sugar. Plus, it can be helpful in ensuring you and your baby are getting adequate calories, says Samuels.
Tummy troubles, on the other hand, can serve as an argument against late-night snacking. "Our digestive system actually also slows down at night—our organs function based on the circadian rhythm," says Samuels. "If you have gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or any sort of GI issues, it can be really helpful to cut off eating two to four hours before bed."
For more, here's a dietitians guide to gut health:
If you're after a good night's sleep, you may also want to rethink your noshing habits. "Eating too close to bedtime can disrupt sleep for some people," says Tabaie. "Food triggers our body's release of insulin, which works in opposition to the body's sleep hormone, melatonin. Eating too much or too close to bed could diminish your body's melatonin production and make it harder to fall asleep." She advises that clients stop eating two to three hours before bed for optimal sleep.
Certain foods are also more likely to cause sleep disturbances than others. "High-sugar, low-fiber foods like cookies, candy, or ice cream will spike blood sugar more and increase your production of insulin whereas foods that are high in fat and low in refined carbohydrates will produce less of a blood sugar/insulin response," says Tabaie.
For optimal late-night snacking, Samuels emphasizes the importance of protein and says that if you like carbs at night, add protein alongside them. "That can help to stabilize your blood sugar," she says. "It will also help you to not want to keep eating more because protein is very satiating." She also notes that carbs aren't necessarily bad to eat at night—they help with serotonin production, which in turn helps with melatonin production, in fact—but the key is to pair them with protein and make sure you're not just consuming straight sugar.
If you're the type with a sweet tooth, Samuels recommends pairing dark chocolate, for example, with nut butter or adding dark chocolate chips in protein-rich greek yogurt. She also recommends sweet potatoes and almond butter in combination, which she admits may sound weird but is actually delicious. Nuts, balanced smoothies ( that contain healthy fats, complex carbs, and protein), and dairy yogurt, meanwhile, are Tabaie's best bedtime snack recommendations. In an episode of Well+Good’s YouTube series You Versus Food, Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, MS, RD, makes a strong case for a banana with peanut butter as the best snack for better sleep.
"Research also suggests that aligning your eating window with your circadian rhythm provides the greatest disease-prevention benefits," says Tabaie. "This means eating when it's light and resting your gut at night, which means you'll naturally stop eating a few hours before bedtime."
In short, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to bedtime snacks, and Samuels reiterates that whether or not this practice is right for you depends upon your individual health, needs, and desires. It's not "bad" to eat before bed, nor is it "good," and Samuels recommends experimenting to see what works and what doesn't in terms of digestion, sleep, weight, and more. "You can eat before bed and have good results for your health," she says. "It just depends."
To learn more about eating before bed, watch this video:
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