You’re doing well with your eating and exercising, going to sleep every night at the same reasonable hour, and cutting back on your alcohol, sugar, and carbs. Though, one night you wake up to use the bathroom, and you find you are absolutely starving.
You’ve heard that you shouldn’t eat and then go to bed directly after, but you don’t know what else to do – you must eat something or you’ll never be able to go back to sleep. What can you eat without feeling guilty that can satisfy your hunger pangs without killing your diet regimen? Have you just ruined everything you worked for by giving in to your hunger?
You’ll be relieved to know that snacking in the middle of the night is not as horrible as people have made it out to be. Just like everything else, you just need to be smart about it.
Is It Ever Okay to Eat in the Middle of the Night?
Eating in the middle of the night is just like anything else when it comes to maintaining a healthy diet – once in awhile is okay, but make a habit of it and you will no doubt gain weight. If you regularly eat when your body has already decided that it’s time to sleep, then this will definitely lead to your packing on extra pounds around the middle.
This is actually why people still gain weight even if they work nights – especially if their bodies aren’t used to working nights. Just because they are up and moving around doesn’t mean their bodies haven’t already powered down for the night, hoping that you will choose to hop into bed instead of burning the midnight oil.
Of course, while most of us know that we need at least seven hours of sleep each night in order to remain alert and ward off unpleasantries like illness and anxiety, many of us still stay up late simply because we have work to finish (or television to enjoy once the kiddies have gone to bed!).
And since food is our bodies’ fuel, it stands to reason that the longer we push our bodies to keep going, the more often we will need to fuel them – so yes, we will need to at least have a snack before we go to bed, especially if we are going to bed long after we should have.
They say you should time your meals so that there are about four or five hours in between them. This is to prevent you from becoming more hungry at night. But when we’re staying up later, the reality is that we will need to eat.
If you tend to wake up tired, it may be because you ate too soon before going to bed. During sleep, your body repairs itself from the previous day’s wear and tear and gets itself ready for a new day. If it’s focusing instead on digesting the food that you ate, it has less energy to “fix” you, and that’s why you wake up feeling tired and unrefreshed.
So, no, it’s not ideal to eat in the middle of the night, but if you have to, you have to. There’s an exception to every rule, and that’s where that one comes in.
What to Eat in the Middle of the Night
So now we’ve established that you’re hungry, that nothing is going to stop the hunger aside from having a quick snack, and that you don’t have to beat yourself up too much – you can have a late-night snack so long as you don’t make a habit of it.
Now the question becomes: what can you eat? What is filling yet healthy that will send you back to bed with a guilt-free smile on your face and some fuel in your belly? You’re in luck because there are actually plenty of different foods to choose from.
The trick is to eat something that will be easy to digest so that your body can make quick work of it and get back to fixing you up and getting you ready for the day ahead. (You also don’t want to be lying awake feeling too full, which is the opposite problem.)
Here are some quick ideas to substitute for what you might want to eat in the middle of the night, but what you can actually eat guilt-free instead:
EAT: A turkey sandwich
INSTEAD OF: A grilled cheese sandwich
The last thing you need in the middle of the night is a sandwich laden down with butter and grease. Opt instead for some lower-sodium turkey on a panini or low-calorie bread with some lettuce and tomato. The protein will fill you up without making you feel weighed down.
EAT: Popcorn, with your choice of flavoring
INSTEAD OF: Potato chips
This is almost the same as the sandwich example in that you are substituting something light and airy for something greasy and weighed down. Add some parmesan cheese, chili powder, or any other spice you might enjoy to your popcorn if you can’t eat it plain – just be sure to skip the butter.
EAT: Fresh fruit
INSTEAD OF: A handful of candy
If you have a wicked sweet tooth like I do, it might be very tempting to just dig a hand into the candy dish while you’re walking past the kitchen on your way to the bedroom, but a much better option is, of course, to chop up some fruit instead.
Cut up some bananas, strawberries, kiwis, starfruit, oranges – whatever you like to eat. The bonus to having a fruit like bananas is that it is more filling, so you will feel fuller than if you ate oranges or blueberries by themselves. And no matter what, the fruit will make you feel fuller – and more healthy in the end – than a handful of candy.
INSTEAD OF: Ice cream
Yogurt is a tricky beast because, depending on the brand you buy, there may be such a high content of sugar in that container that you might as well opt for ice cream instead and enjoy yourself.
You’ll still need to read the label, but you can generally do much better with Greek yogurt than the alternative, as Greek yogurt tends to have less sugar than other brands of yogurt. You can even plump it up with some fresh fruit, or some frozen fruit if you have a hankering for a frostier treat.
INSTEAD OF: Ranch or Onion Dip
Whether you like to dip your chips in onion dip, or your fruit in yogurt dip (which we have already established can be loaded with sugar), dips are, more often than not, unhealthy.
Instead of dipping your carrots and celery into a cup of ranch dressing, opt instead for the healthier choice of hummus.
Some other healthy food items to consider include apple slices, whole-grain English muffins accompanied by healthy toppings (like tomato sauce or a dab of peanut butter), or a small bowl of whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk.
If you need to stay up to finish a project, then you might want to choose something that contains more protein, like beans or meat – just be smart about your portions and your choices (i.e. chicken or turkey is a better choice than red meat).
Adjust Your Sleeping Habits
Ultimately, you don’t want to be getting up in the middle of the night to eat. These options are there for you in case you are absolutely famished and you must eat to calm your stomach.
If you find that you are regularly suffering from insomnia, then you will probably need to make some adjustments to your personal habits in order to keep insomnia at bay. For instance, you may want to reduce the amount of water you drink before bedtime so that you don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.
And so that you don’t wake up hungry, you may want to eat something that is higher in carbohydrates but lower in protein shortly before you go to sleep – kind of like giving your body a project to work on (in addition to the work it already needs to do to “fix” you).
Eating foods like granola, whole-grain crackers, and whole-grain bread with a topping like hummus or fresh fruit can boost your serotonin and melatonin, which can ultimately help you sleep better and wake up less often.
So while it may seem taboo to have a snack in the middle of the night, it is allowed provided that you make smarter food choices and that you don’t snack all the time. If you find that your midnight snacking is becoming more regular than you would like it to be, then you may need to re-evaluate what it is that you are doing during the day in order to prevent your waking up so much at night.
Do you wake up regularly throughout the night? Do you go to bed late, therefore requiring some sort of snack before bed, or do you go to bed early and wake up in the middle of the night to snack? Let us know in the comments.
Dutrition lets you plan your diet and get the body you want!