Imagine you're surfing through your favorite late night talk shows when the unmistakable rumble of a hungry stomach fills the room. There are many reasons why we may get a food craving in the middle of the night. While it could originate through boredom, things like dehydration, a lack of protein and genuine hunger after an early dinner are also to blame.
A common misconception is that eating after a certain point in the day is "bad" and that late night snacking is one culprit that can lead to weight gain. After all, we burn less calories when we sleep. So instead of being used for energy, those late night calories are just going to get stored as fat, right? Not necessarily.
The truth is, your body burns calories around the clock. While it's true that you burn more calories while awake, the main focus is on the total amount of calories you take in throughout the day, not necessarily the timing of them. If you indulge in a bowl of ice cream one day, whether it's at 7 a.m., 2 p.m. or 11 p.m. -- it doesn't matter the time. What matters is if those calories are in excess of what you need to consume each day. So, while late night snacks may not be as bad for your waistline as you may have thought, all snack foods are not created equal.
Unfortunately, later in the evening and in the wee hours of the morning, we are often at the mercy of convenience. Even though there may be nutritious options available, we tend to make poor choices when we are overtired and overly hungry. Often times, these "convenience" snacks are high in fat and sugar and low in nutrition. In order to prevent derailing a healthy eating plan at night, focus on making some of these healthier choices.
Making Healthy Choices
First things first, your late-night eating should be more of a "mini-meal" with a definite start and finish, rather than mindless grazing. Meal foods also tend to have greater amounts of protein than traditional snack foods. Protein is going to be much more filling than sugary or starchy foods, leaving you less likely to raid the kitchen again an hour later.
Also, since dehydration is one of the main culprits for good cravings, start off by drinking some water when you get the hunger pains in the middle of the night. If you are dehydrated, the water will satisfy the hunger you are feeling. Avoid drinking coffee or other caffeinated beverages. If drinking water still leaves you hungry, head to the kitchen and prepare yourself some healthy snacks.
Midnight Mini-Meal Ideas
- Small dish of low-fat cottage cheese and canned or fresh fruit
- One string cheese and a piece of fresh fruit or whole grain crackers
- A small cup of edamame
- A handful nuts
- A small whole wheat pita with hummus
- Half of a turkey sandwich
- Celery sticks or apple slices with peanut butter
- A small 3oz can of tuna with a few whole grain crackers
- A small bowl of whole grain cereal with fat free or 1% low-fat milk
If you are a consistent late night snacker, dedicate a small area in your refrigerator to late night snacks and keep some pre-prepared healthy options on hand. That way, when hunger strikes you will be prepared and less tempted to indulge in the less healthy snack alternatives.
Sarah Dreifke is a freelance writer based in DeKalb, IL with a passion for nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease. She holds a Bachelor of Science in both Dietetics and Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is working towards a combined Master's Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics as well as a dietetic internship at Northern Illinois University.