There are about as many reasons why we eat late at night as there are snack options. My most frequent response to the “4th meal” debate, “It depends.” Usually I want to know the when, what, why, where and how of your snacking habits.
When – Timing is important for snacking. Despite popular belief eating before bed will not necessarily cause weight gain. Your body still requires energy (aka calories) while you sleep. There are also some foods and beverages that are calming and can aid in relaxation or falling asleep, while others can keep you up. More on that in the What section.
- Snack – If you eat dinner around 5 or 6 p.m. and go to bed after midnight, then eating a snack around 9 or 10 p.m. is completely acceptable…assuming you are making a quality, real food snack.
- Don’t snack – Snacking too close to when you plan to get horizontal for some shut eye can make it difficult to sleep. People who experience reflux, heart burn, GERD…whatever you want to call it…should not eat within 2 hours of bedtime. Check out my post Feel the (Not So Good) Burn for more info.
What – If you select your food and beverage choices carefully, then your bedtime snack might actually help you fall asleep and sustain your blood sugar overnight. On the other hand if you do not make the wisest, real food choices, then you could be wide when you would rather be sleeping.
- Snack – Having more carbohydrates later in the evening or as a night-time snack has been shown to aid in sleep induction, meaning it can help you fall asleep faster. (Am J Clin Nutr February 2007 vol. 85 no 2 426-430). There is also evidence that indicates foods or beverages that contain glycine, such as bone broth, gelatin powder, animal skins or meat directly off the bone, aids in sleep. For the fellow science nerds, a higher glycemic load (more carbs) increases plasma levels of tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin. Besides being the “feel good,” serotonin is neurotransmitter that can be a sleep-inducing agent. I am still reading about all of the wonderful effects of glycine. I have recently learned though that it can reduce core body temperature, which is strongly correlated with circadian oscillation. Our circadian rhythm is also known as our sleep-wake cycle. When our core body temperature is at its lowest we are at our most rested state. As our core body temperature increases we awaken. The Journal of Pharmacological Studies has just one of the articles I reviewed for evidence-based information related to glycine and sleep (J Pharmacy Sci 118, 145-148 (2012)). So what would appropriate real food snacks look like?
- 8 ounces of home made bone broth
- 1/2 baked sweet potato with 1 teaspoon coconut oil or ghee and a sprinkle of vanilla salt
- 1/2 peach, pear or apple roasted, topped with 1 tablespoon heavy cream or coconut oil and chopped walnuts, then sprinkled with cinnamon
- 1/2 cup vanilla chia seed pudding (adapted from Whole Foods Market recipe) – Combine all ingredients into large bowl and soak overnight.
- 2/3 cup chia seeds
- 2/3 cup full fat coconut milk
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1-2 tablespoons maple syrup or honey
- 2 tablespoons unsweetened shredded coconut
- Don’t snack – Foods that are high in pure protein, such as fish, lean white meat chicken or pork or even beef jerky, have a higher thermodynamic effect. It takes more energy to digest these foods. More energy required for digestions means increased body temperature. Caffeine can also be a huge contributor to sleep disturbance. The effects of caffeine peak within 30-40 minutes of ingestion, however it can take 5-1o hours for it to be completely eliminated from your body. While having a cup or two of coffee early in the morning will not affect your quality of sleep later that night, drinking a cup or two in the afternoon might. Avoid caffeinated beverages including coffee, teas, sodas and of course energy drinks. If you are super sensitive to stimulants, then you will want to avoid chocolate as well. Theobromine is a naturally occurring chemical in chocolate that acts similar to caffeine. Its effects are not nearly as strong as caffeine, but it can still disturb sleep.
Why – This part of the snacking equation may be a bit more difficult to ascertain. There is no eat-this-not-that food selection here. This part actually requires you think about your feelings and reasons for snacking. Typically I see 3 main reasons why people need or want snacks.
- The first reason is that they simply are not eating enough throughout the day or their intake is imbalanced and missing one of the major macronutrients, so they are actually hungry. This is common for people who are dieting to lose weight by eliminating a specific nutrient (i.e. low fat diet or low carb diet). This can also be experienced by people who have intense workouts in the evening time. Carbohydrates are important for replacing glycogen stores, which are not repleted if following strictly low carb diets without allowances for increased carbohydrate intake after heavy workouts.
- A second reason why people want to snack before bed is often related to emotional eating or boredom. If you stand in front of your refrigerator, freezer or pantry and say, “I’m hungry, but I don’t know what I want,” then you are almost certainly not hungry. Take a time out for a little reflection. Is there a need you have that is currently being unmet emotionally? Are you trying to stuff your insides with foods to create a physical sensation that masks the emotional sensations you are trying to avoid? We could get deeper, and likely most of us should. Sometimes understanding why we want to eat is more important that what we choose to eat. Using food as a coping mechanism often means we are not listening to our body cues, so our “off-valve” does not work and we unintentionaly over-eat.
- The third most common reason why people snack when they are not hungry is because they haven’t stopped to relax during the day and they are simply in the habit of doing something all the time, they are in perpetual motion.
Where and How– The location of your snacking can overlap a little bit with the why of snacking and the how. If the reason you are snacking is because you are super hungry and ready to eat anything in site, then you are less likely to make it to the table for proper set-up. On the flip side if you want to sit on the couch and watch TV while munching away, then you are likely not that hungry. The key to effective snacking is ensuring that you are in a relaxed environment, at a table and free from distractions. So these dos and don’ts may go without saying:
- Snack – Put a small portion of food on a plate or in a bowl, get a proper utensil and take the items to a table. Remove all distractions, including phone and electronic devices, TV, newspaper, books, mail, work etc. Focus on your food. With this method you will only eat until you are full. If you are not really hungry, then this method will also mean you eat less than you would elsewhere because you will get bored and not want to keep eating…in other words you will recognize that the food is not serving the purpose you assigned to it.
- Don’t snack – If following the above Snack strategy feels too cumbersome, then do not snack. Try to find some other way to distract yourself for 15-20 minutes. Go for a walk. Call a friend. Watch TV. Relax with some deep breathing exercises. If you are still hungry after 15-20 minutes, then set up your snacking space and go back to the above listed Snack strategy. Whatever you do, do not snack in front of the TV with an open bag, box, carton or container. That never ends well.
If you have questions or comments about snacking or curbing your late night noshing, then please feel free to email or call me. Otherwise, enjoy your food, stay active and have fun.