The 10 Best and Worst Bedtime Snacks
If hunger strikes late in the day, choose wisely. Here, dietitians share the foods to reach for and the ones to avoid if you want to fall (and stay!) asleep.
Fried foods, nuts, and fruit: Which options are smart to eat in the evening and at night?
Who doesn’t love putting up their feet and tucking in to a bowl of popcorn or ice cream at the end of a long day?
While the occasional bedtime snack is fine, capping off every day with sweet or salty fare may spell trouble. “Snacking later into the night increases the chance of weight gain, obesity, and cardiometabolic diseases,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, a registered dietitian and the manager of Wellness Nutrition Services at Cleveland Clinic Wellness and Preventive Medicine in Ohio.
Many of us are more likely to reach for less-than-healthy foods in the evening, and you can blame your body’s built-in survival mechanisms for this. Research has shown?that our circadian rhythms (the body’s internal processes that follow a 24-hour cycle) raise our hunger and cravings for sweet, salty, and carbohydrate-heavy foods in the evenings.
Researchers speculate that a desire to eat high-calorie foods at night helped our ancestors survive when food was scarce. But in today’s world, late-night cravings can add unnecessary calories that lead to significant weight gain if left unchecked.
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Ideally, you’ll stop eating two to three hours before going to bed. If you’re actually hungry and you need a snack to dip into slumber, chances are you’re not eating enough during the day, Kirkpatrick says. Still, if you do need to eat, or you crave a quick bite before bed, “it is important to choose a small, low-calorie, nutrient-dense snack at this time of the day,” Kirkpatrick says.
What’s more, some snacks contain nutrients that may relax your body, helping you fall and stay asleep.
Read on to discover the best bedtime snacks, as well as the snacks to avoid.
Best: Tart Cherries and Juice
Tart cherries contain melatonin, a key hormone for regulating sleep. Eating fresh tart cherries or juice increases the level of melatonin in the body, which helps you get to sleep a little easier, according to Kirkpatrick.
In one study, adults who drank 8 ounces of concentrated tart cherry juice twice a day for a week scored more — and better — sleep.
If you’re sipping juice, skip fruit juice concentrates, as these typically contain added sugar, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). The?Mayo Clinic advises choosing a juice that’s labeled “100% fruit juice”; it will contain more nutrients and fewer additives than a sweetened fruit juice or a juice concentrate. (If you find cherry juice too tart, try diluting it to taste with water or plain seltzer.)
Worst: Ice Cream
Traditional ice cream is high in unhealthy saturated fats and added sugars, which can trigger cravings that lead to overeating, according to Jonathan Valdez, RDN, the owner of Genki Nutrition and a media spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Plus, “the amount of sugar in ice cream increases blood sugar and makes it more difficult to get to sleep and stay asleep,” Kirkpatrick says.
Best: Almonds or Walnuts
Magnesium, for one, may help reduce insomnia in older adults, according to past research. As the Cleveland Clinic notes, one ounce (oz) of dry roasted almonds (about 24 nuts) offers 80 milligrams (mg) of magnesium, making them a good source of the mineral. Research suggests that sufficient magnesium in the diet may improve sleep quality, especially if you have insomnia.
Just ensure the nuts have low or no added sodium, because “salt can disrupt the sleeping cycle,” Kirkpatrick says. And keep calories and fat in check by sticking to a 1 oz serving. If you prefer walnuts to almonds, 1 oz equates to roughly 14 walnut halves, says the Cleveland Clinic.
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Like ice cream, chocolate tends to be high in sugar, meaning it’s not the wisest option for a bedtime snack.
You may think dark chocolate is a safe choice late in the day, as these bars are typically lower in sugar than milk chocolate. But chocolate is also a source of caffeine, a stimulant that disrupts the body’s sleeping pattern throughout the night, says Kirkpatrick. And the darker the chocolate (the higher the percentage of cacao solids), the more caffeine it has.
For comparison, 1 cup of brewed coffee contains about 96 milligrams (mg) of caffeine, whereas 1 oz of chocolate with 70 to 85 percent cacao has about 22.7 mg; chocolate with 45 to 59 percent cacao has 12.2 mg. So while dark chocolate is still a good option for a heart-healthy, diabetes-friendly snack, it’s best enjoyed while the sun’s still out.
Best: Cereal With Minimal Sugar and Low-Fat Milk
Pair a bowl of low-sugar cereal with some low-fat milk for a one-two punch. A cereal with minimal sugar (Kirkpatrick suggests looking for less than 5 g of sugar per serving and at least 3 g of fiber) provides the body with high-fiber carbs to keep you full, while low-fat milk offers the amino acid tryptophan. “Tryptophan produces serotonin in the body, which is converted into melatonin, inducing sleep,” Kirkpatrick says.
Drinking alcohol before bed may help you fall asleep faster, but it won’t help you stay asleep. “Drinking before bed actually disrupts the body’s natural sleep cycle,” Kirkpatrick says. Alcohol inhibits rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a phase of deep, restorative sleep when vivid dreams occur. This may cause you to wake up during the night, and sleep either less deeply or for a shorter time, the?Cleveland Clinic points out; alcohol’s initial sedative effect also wears off once the alcohol is metabolized, and this can lead to sleep disruption too.
Plus, “[drinking alcohol before bed] can lead to drowsiness the following day, making it difficult to complete daily functions,” Kirkpatrick says.
Dairy foods like yogurt contain melatonin, which improves sleep efficiency and reduces the number of episodes of awakening, Valdez says.
Yogurt is rich in calcium (272 mg per cup of nonfat Greek yogurt), a bone-building mineral that also plays a role in processing hormones that help you sleep, according to the?American Sleep Association. (Those hormones would be tryptophan and melatonin.)
Worst: Potato Chips
Potato chips are a classic late-night snack. But they’re typically high in unhealthy fats and empty calories, says Valdez. In other words, potato chips provide plenty of calories and saturated fats, while offering few to no nutrients. A single cup has 140 calories and 8.8 g of fat (1.4 g from saturated fat), according to the?U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Chips are also salty, “which can make a person even hungrier and lead to overeating,” Kirkpatrick says. If you’re not careful, you may take in more calories than you need, leading to weight gain over time. Not to mention, consuming too much sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, notes the American Heart Association.
Best: Roasted Chickpeas
Roasted chickpeas are a nutrient-dense, low-calorie snack that’s high in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, Valdez says. This makes them a healthier alternative to salty snacks like potato chips.
For example, a 1 oz serving of roasted chickpeas has 120 calories, 6 g of protein, and 5 g of fiber, making it a good source of the latter.
Worst: Fried Food
Fried foods like chicken strips and french fries are high in fat, and fat takes longer to digest than carbs and protein. This is a bad idea when it comes to bedtime snacks. “Ingesting heavy, greasy foods before bed can shift the body’s focus away from sleep,” Kirkpatrick says.
“Fried foods are also more likely to induce heartburn and other discomforts, making it more difficult for the body to rest before bed,” she says.