One of the most pervasive myths in the health and fitness is that eating late at night will make you fat. Admittedly, there’s some evidence suggesting that eating more calories later in the day is associated with weight gain and reduced cardiometabolic health. And as we’ve talked about before, timing of meals may play a big role in regulating circadian rhythms.
But when it comes to weight management, well-controlled clinical trials suggest that what and how much you eat is more important than when. Of course, if when you eat influences what and how much you eat, then obviously, it does matter.
That said, a small, healthy, structured nighttime snack may be highly beneficial for weight management, appetite control, increasing muscle mass, improving recovery from exercise, and increasing strength.
For instance, one study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition showed that overweight folks consuming a light snack (
Here are some of our top-nighttime choices.
- High-Quality Protein. Eating a small, protein-rich snack before bed can help promote recovery from exercise and increase muscle size and strength when combined with a resistance training program. What’s more, recent research conducted at Florida State University shows that consumption of 30 grams of casein or whey protein before sleep has beneficial effects on appetite the next morning, noticeable increases in next morning metabolism, and improvements in markers of cardiovascular health such as blood pressure.
- Cherries, Pineapples, Oranges, Kiwifruit, and Bananas. Carbs? You must be kidding, right? No, I haven’t fallen off my rocker. Each of these fruits contain melatonin, which is a hormone produced by the pineal gland that acts as a sleep facilitator. Melatonin plays a key role in regulating circadian rhythms, and ideally, melatonin levels are highest at nighttime when they help induce sleep. In addition, several of these fruits (e.g., cherries, bananas) contain tryptophan, which is converted to melatonin and has direct effects on sleep, producing increased sleepiness, decreased wakefulness, and improved quality of sleep.
- Walnuts and Other Nuts. Nuts have a unique stress-easing property: Their crunchiness. Interestingly, researchers believe that chewing causes changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which is responsible for initiating the hormonal response to stress. Under stressful circumstances, chewing reduces stress-induced increases in stress hormones (e.g., cortisol, catecholamines). In addition, chewing crunchy nuts generates a satiety signal that helps regulate appetite. Oh, and one more thing…researchers from The University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas, found that melatonin is present in walnuts, and they showed that consumption of walnuts increases blood levels of melatonin.
At the end of the day, it’s important to find what works best for you. If enjoying a small (150 – 200 calories) snack comprised of healthy foods like the ones listed above helps you make better food choices in appropriate amounts the rest of the day, then stick with it. On the other hand, if you find that you tend to overeat junk food in the evening, then maybe it’s best to nix the snacking, evaluate your overall nutrition plan (and priorities), and take some time to do a kitchen makeover (you can’t eat it if it isn’t there).