We’ve all succumbed to late-night snacking at one point or another. Maybe you lost track of time and realize it’s 9 p.m. and you haven’t eaten dinner but will go to bed in an hour. Or you work second shift, which makes eating at 11 p.m. or midnight a common occurrence.
Is eating late at night bad for you? What’s considered “late?” What if you work afternoons or evenings, when’s the best time to eat?
Sara Jank, MS, RDN, CDN, is a clinical nutritionist at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. She says eating late isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “There is no specific time at night that eating becomes bad for you or that you should stop eating. Factors to consider include your schedule, what and how much you are eating, and why.”
Why is eating late at night so controversial?
“Late-night eating can often include higher-calorie foods or continuous grazing while watching TV. If you are snacking not because you are actually hungry but instead due to habit, routine, emotions, boredom, etc., you are likely taking in excess calories that our body doesn’t need without adding much nutritional value,” she says.
Consider why you’re eating as the evening goes on. If it is because you’re bored, find another activity to keep you busy or portion out one serving and limit yourself to that amount, rather than eating your snack straight out of the bag. More tips on limiting your late-night snacks can be found here and here.
On the other hand, if you truly are hungry, “this could be a sign that you are not eating enough during the day,” says Jank.
Make sure you’re picking healthy food options, eating regularly and not skipping meals during the day because you’ll likely have reduced willpower when you’re starving in the evening.
You may have heard the adage, “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.” While you don’t have to follow this to the extreme, eating a lower-calorie, well-balanced dinner at the appropriate time can help cut down on your evening snacking.
For many people, it is ideal to stop eating two to three hours before bed.
“This is to allow time for food to digest, which may help you sleep better and avoid possible heartburn, indigestion or an upset stomach when you lay down to sleep,” Jank says.
Avoid sugary foods or beverages, high-fat foods, spicy foods, caffeine or alcohol that could have negative effects on your sleep.
But if you’re still hungry close to bedtime, it is okay to eat a snack! You don’t want your grumbling stomach to keep you awake all night.
“Opt for foods with some protein in them and try to pick from food groups like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and low-fat dairy,” says Jank. Check out some of her favorite late-night snacks below.
Healthy late night snacks
- Cottage cheese
- Yogurt or string cheese with fruit
- ½ of a turkey or egg salad sandwich
- Whole grain cereal with milk
- Edamame or a handful of nuts or seeds
- Apple slices or celery with peanut butter
- Tuna pouch with whole grain crackers
While this might all sound great, what happens if I work second or third shift? When should I eat?
“The good news is that there is no specific time on the clock that you are ‘supposed’ to eat or to stop eating, so you can make adjustments for your schedule,” Jank says. “Follow the same concepts as above in terms of trying not to eat anything heavy for two to three hours before you go to sleep (whenever that is!), avoiding the types of foods and drinks that could impact your sleep quality and considering a small healthy snack if you are hungry!”