We’ve all been there. It’s late in the evening, dinner’s over, and we should be winding down for bed – but we start feeling peckish. Should we head to the kitchen and whip up something to eat or tough it out until morning?
Most of us have heard that you shouldn’t eat too close to bedtime, and there’s plenty of research to suggest that doing so regularly could have some adverse effects on our weight and sleep.
But the occasional healthy evening (or even midnight) snack is unlikely to make much difference to your health. Plus, if you find yourself hungry before bed, your body might be hinting that you haven’t eaten enough that day – so there’s no need to suffer until breakfast.
With this in mind, we’ve put together a list of eight healthy foods that’ll hopefully keep you satisfied until morning and may even help you sleep better.
The science behind snacking in the evening
Late-night snackery has long been scrutinised by laymen and health experts alike. But why is that?
Some studies suggest that keeping our food consumption within an 8-12 hour period during the waking half of the day (in line with our circadian rhythm or internal body clock) can be beneficial for preventing conditions like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
There’s also been lots of discussion about the impact that eating late in the evening can have on our sleep and weight.
We’ll look at each of these in more detail below…
The impact of late-night snacking on weight
There’s mounting evidence to suggest that regularly eating late in the evening or at night can lead to increased weight gain.
For example, this US study looked into the effects of two different meal patterns.
The first pattern involved eating meals earlier in the day, with the last meal being eaten approximately six and a half hours before bed. The second involved participants tucking into their meals later on, with the last meal being eaten approximately two and a half hours before bed.
The study found that the second pattern led to increased feelings of hunger the following day, as well as a reduction in the number of calories burned. This study from Vanderbilt University also came up with similar results.
The reason for this isn’t entirely clear, though some experts say it has to do with how our circadian rhythm affects things like metabolism, nutrient absorption, and insulin sensitivity.
The impact of late-night snacking on sleep
Eating late at night has also been linked to disrupted sleep patterns…
For example, this study found that the more participants ate in the evening hours – especially foods with a high-fat content – the worse their sleep was. Specifically, it revealed that those who ate more in the evening spent less time in REM sleep (one of the most restorative stages of the sleep cycle) and had more difficulty getting to and/or staying asleep.
Plus, if you’re prone to experiencing acid reflux, the combination of eating before bed and lying down can trigger heartburn, which can lead to disrupted sleep.
The verdict – is late-night snacking bad for us?
Before we move on to the best evening snacks, it’s worth pointing out that the occasional late-night snack is unlikely to have any major consequences for your health. So, while being conscious of these findings can be useful, you don’t necessarily need to start making big changes to your eating habits.
Some health experts even suggest that eating certain foods before bed is perfectly healthy and can improve sleep and aid weight loss.
That being said, it’s generally agreed that certain foods are best avoided before bed. These include spicy foods, foods containing caffeine, and foods with high amounts of sugar and processed carbs (because these may keep you up and are of little nutritional value).
Instead, it’s best to reach for something nutrient-dense that’s low in calories, high in protein and/or fibre, and minimally processed (ideally a wholefood), like the suggestions below…
8 healthy and filling evening snacks
A handful of pistachios (30 kernels) adds up to around 100 calories, and the high fibre and protein content of this little green nut means it can keep you fuller for longer.
Pistachios are particularly good choices for late-night snacking because of the amount of melatonin they contain. Melatonin is a hormone that’s present in both plants and animals. It helps to control and regulate our sleep patterns – and eating it before bed can help us to fall asleep faster and stay asleep for longer.
Nuts in general are known for their high melatonin levels, though pistachios contain the most of them all. Plus, prising open all of those shells before bed can be tiring in itself!
2. Cottage cheese
Whole foods that are high in protein and low in carbohydrates make excellent evening snacks. This is because protein takes longer than carbohydrates to digest, meaning it can keep you feeling satisfied until breakfast.
With this in mind, cottage cheese is a great before-bed snack. Low-fat varieties made from 1% milk can contain only 163 calories per cup, while still packing a whopping 28g of protein, which is over half of our recommended daily amount.
Research also suggests that eating 30g worth of protein half an hour before bed could boost muscle growth and metabolic rate throughout the night – meaning that it may even contribute to how efficiently you burn calories while at rest.
Cottage cheese can be a little plain on its own, so why not combine it with a sprinkling of berries, sliced banana, and/or nuts? This article from Simple Nourished Living has some more suggestions on creative ways to eat it.
Another food that’s low in calories and may also help us sleep better is the kiwi. This study found that people who ate kiwis one hour before bed for a month experienced a 35% reduction in the time it took for them to fall asleep.
They also reported better sleep quality. The reason for this is unclear, but it may have to do with the high serotonin levels found in kiwis. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that’s essential for regulating sleep.
Porridge is a tried and tested breakfast choice – but did you know that it makes a delicious, evening snack too?
Packed full of fibre, oats will hopefully keep you full until morning and, like nuts, they’re a good source of melatonin. But this isn’t the only sleep-promoting ingredient present. Oats also contain the amino acid tryptophan, which converts to serotonin when it reaches our brain.
A small bowl of porridge containing 25g of rolled oats and 150ml of skimmed milk contains around 150 calories. If this sounds a bit plain, try stirring some cinnamon in for a warm and comforting pre-bed snack, or a dash of raw honey, which is thought to have some sleep-promoting properties of its own.
5. Greek yoghurt
In the evenings, many of us find ourselves turning to sweet things like desserts or biscuits. However, high-sugar foods are some of the worst things we can eat before bed – not only because they’re high in calories and won’t keep us full for long, but also because sugar is thought to disturb our sleep.
For something that feels like a treat, yet is low in calories and full of nutrients, why not turn to Greek yoghurt? A typical 150g serving contains 15g of protein, which is a significant portion of our daily requirement (33% for women and 27% for men) and will help to ward off those hunger pangs.
Greek yoghurt is high in calcium too, which helps the brain to produce melatonin. So it’s also beneficial for our sleep.
If simple Greek yoghurt seems a bit plain, why not try adding a few nuts or berries? This article from Ochsner Health has a few helpful suggestions for tasty and creative ways to enjoy it, including my personal favourite – freezing it into creamy ice lollies.
This eggcellent option may be a breakfast favourite but it also makes for a quick, easy, and nutritious evening snack.
Two average-sized eggs contain approximately 156 calories, 12g of protein, and a range of sleep-inducing ingredients – such as tryptophan, melatonin, and vitamin D – the latter of which is also involved in the production of melatonin.
You can enjoy your evening eggs poached, fried, or however you like them. However, keeping a few hard-boiled ones in the fridge is a handy, fuss-free way to satisfy hunger pangs as soon as they arrive.
And if you’re really hungry, why not enjoy scrambled eggs spread over a slice of whole wheat toast? Or give one of these egg snack ideas from Get Cracking a try.
There’s a reason why bananas are a tried and tested healthy snack. They’re low in calories (around 100 for a medium-sized banana) while being great at keeping hunger at bay. This has a lot to do with the fact that they’re packed full of pectin; a soluble fibre found in fruits and vegetables that increases feelings of fullness by delaying gastric emptying.
Plus, bananas have relatively high levels of tryptophan and magnesium. Like tryptophan, magnesium can help promote sleep by increasing the production of melatonin in the body. It also decreases cortisol levels. Cortisol is known as ‘the stress hormone’ and it helps to keep you awake.
Unlike sugary, fast-digesting carbohydrates found in snacks like cakes and biscuits, higher-fibre carb options like bananas are slower to digest. They also won’t cause sharp spikes in your blood sugar levels – something that can make it more difficult to fall asleep.
If you’re in the mood for something a little more interesting, some people recommend pairing a banana with almond butter. This isn’t only tasty but it’ll also give you an extra helping of magnesium and melatonin.
8. Oily fish
Oily fish – like mackerel, tuna, salmon, and sardines – are superfoods and will serve you well when you feel hungry just before bed. They’re high in protein and rich in lots of key nutrients – particularly vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, which are understood to help with sleep.
These tuna salad cucumber cups are a tasty way to enjoy fatty fish late at night, without worrying about eating a load of carbs. Mackerel on wholewheat toast is another popular option.
Next time you feel yourself fighting cravings late at night, why not reach for one of the eight foods listed here? They’re healthy, will hopefully keep you full until the morning, and might even help you drift off.
If, on the other hand, you’re feeling a bit peckish but don’t want to eat, lots of nutritionists recommend having a glass of water or caffeine-free tea first to help curb your appetite.
Although, if you’re really hungry, it’s important not to starve yourself – your body is telling you it wants food for a reason. If you do tuck into an evening snack, try to see it as an opportunity to get some of the nutrients you missed that day!
Do you consistently find yourself hungry before bed? If so, what’s your favourite go-to snack? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.