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Even if you’ve eaten your three meals a day and a few snacks in between, you might find that you’re still a little hungry toward the end of the night — just around when you’re heading off to bed. It’s quite common, and not always a bad thing, to feel your stomach rumbling so late at night.
One of the biggest culprits for late-night hunger is due to being in a calorie deficit — i.e., burning more calories that day than you consumed — which may be the result of being active. When this happens, ignoring your body’s cues to have a small snack and going to bed famished can actually backfire, warns Suzanne Dixon, RD, an epidemiologist with Cambia Health Solutions in Portland, Oregon. “Hunger can disrupt sleep, and lack of sleep can increase production of stress hormones such as cortisol that may lead to overeating the next day,” she explains.
There are a few important factors to consider, however, when chomping down in the evening. In fact, if you’re not choosing the right foods and the right amounts, as well as factoring in what you’ve already consumed during the day, you might find yourself feeling particularly energy-deprived the following morning.
Here, nutrition pros explain some of the ways that your seemingly harmless bedtime snack could be leaving you sluggish the next day.
1. It’s too caloric.
Having a large snack — more than 200 to 300 calories max — can disrupt sleep and contribute to heartburn. (Lying down after a big snack is a common culprit for reflux.) “Nothing will make you sluggish the next day like being up and down with digestive discomfort,” Dixon warns.
She recommends keeping your snacks light and balanced. “Try half a protein shake, such as ½ scoop of protein powder, ½ banana and 1 tablespoon of nut butter,” she says. “Even reheating a small portion of whatever you had for dinner can work well.”
2. It’s full of sugar.
It’s common to crave something sweet, especially after dinner, but you may want to think twice before serving yourself a few scoops of ice cream before bed. “The high levels of sugar in ice cream can cause a pleasant spike in your blood sugar followed by a dip that is typically lower than your baseline,” warns Tansy Rodgers, FNTP, functional nutritional therapy practitioner. “You may wake in the morning sleepy because your blood sugar has tanked throughout the night.”
Another reason to pass on the ice cream is because an estimated 36 percent of Americans are lactose intolerant, per the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which means they experience a slew of unpleasant symptoms after consuming dairy, including bloating, gas, diarrhea and nausea. In short, you won’t be getting much shut-eye when you feel sick from the ice cream you consumed right before bed.
3. It’s full of simple carbohydrates.
If your nighttime cravings tend to be more savory than sweet, you might think to reach for crackers or a bag of chips. This is not the best idea, according to Rodgers. “Most conventional chips are made with industrial seed oils (i.e., vegetable oils, canola oil, safflower oil, etc.), salt and preservatives, which can all cause gut inflammation and body swelling, and are hard to digest,” she says. “If your body is trying to process all this late at night and dealing with any negative side effects, you may find yourself having a restless night.”
What’s more: Chips are hard to limit in terms of the amount, so what might have started as a well-intended handful can quickly escalate to you consuming half the bag. “Not only is this a large amount of carbohydrates to ingest at night, along with ingredients that are hard to digest, but this directly affects your blood sugar and can leave you waking quite sleepy,” Rodgers says.
Instead, she suggests opting for chips that use sea salt (i.e., Celtic or Himalayan sea salt) and healthy oils (i.e., avocado or coconut) and that do not contain preservatives. Also, keep your serving to a handful at most, she says.
4. Your “snack” is alcoholic.
If you’re hoping to quench your hunger with a little liquid courage, whether that’s a glass of wine or a shot of liquor, you might have an easier time falling asleep initially but are likely to wake up in the early-morning hours because of increased cortisol, Rodgers warns. What’s more: Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it actually depletes your body of water, leaving you in a state of dehydration. Being dehydrated not only will make you feel sluggish the next day but also will leave you with a headache.
Instead of an alcoholic-based beverage, Rodgers suggests sipping on some caffeine-free tea or even a warm glass of coconut milk with cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom. “If you really want to have your glass of wine, stick with one small glass and try to have it slightly earlier in the evening, leaving about three hours or so before bedtime.”
5. It’s too high in protein.
Protein is an important macronutrient that helps your body build and retain muscle, so it might make sense to opt for a snack that contains a healthy portion of protein. However, Rodgers warns that a high-protein snack might leave you feeling sluggish the next day. The main reason for this is because protein is hard for the body to digest, which could interrupt your sleep.
She also points out that if your protein of choice happens to be processed meat, they can be energy sabotaging for another reason. “Some processed meats, such as pepperoni and salami, actually stimulate the brain because they contain tyramine, an amino acid that triggers the release of norepinephrine, a brain stimulant.
Instead, she recommends snacking on complex carbs that have a little bit of protein, like bananas and mangoes. “This way, you get the serotonin-boosting carbs but also the protein to slow down the impact that the carbs may have on your blood sugar levels, leaving you more satiated and more balanced energy in the morning.”
6. It’s too spicy or acidic.
As tasty as they might be, spicy or acidic foods can cause heartburn, especially for someone who is already prone to gastroesophageal reflux disease, Rodgers warns. “At night, when it is time to lie down, that positioning actually makes heartburn worse,” she says. “So if you are having a heartburn attack and then attempt to lie in a position that makes the burning worse, it will most likely disrupt your sleep and cause you to be more restless.”
Restless sleep or even struggling to fall asleep means you are not getting your rest, therefore not allowing your body to recoup in ways needed to feel energetic in the morning.
While it’s most optimal to avoid these types of foods altogether during the nighttime hours, if you do find yourself suffering the consequences, Rodgers recommends taking a natural supplement periodically to calm the burn.
7. It contains too much fat.
Fat is another important macronutrient, but it unfortunately can slow down digestion. This means that it takes longer for your body to digest foods with high-fat content, leaving it sitting in your stomach throughout the night. “Fat is great for smoothing out how energy gets from your digestive tract into your bloodstream and your body’s cells and keeps you full longer, but it can sit in your digestive tract like a lump and disrupt sleep if you eat too much,” Dixon says. She recommends keeping fat to no more than 10 grams for your bedtime snack.
8. You’re eating it too close to bedtime.
While snacking a bit before you go to sleep is usually OK, Dixon recommends spacing it out at least an hour from when you actually nod off to sleep to avoid digestive upset and possible reflux issues. “Set an alarm to remind you of your ‘no-eating-after’ time,” she says. “If you typically go to bed at 10 p.m., for example, set your alarm for 8:45 p.m. so you get a 15-minute warning and time to squeeze in a quick snack pre-bedtime, if you need it.”