Who doesn’t love putting up their feet and tucking into a bowl of popcorn or ice cream at the end of a long day? We all do, but are these foods good or bad for sleep?
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 dietitian and author of Skinny Liver: A Proven Program to Prevent and Reverse the New Silent Epidemic — Fatty Liver Disease.
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. Research from 2023 shows that late-night eating could throw off our internal clocks and may be associated with higher total caloric intake and body mass index (BMI).
“To offset these innate cravings, I have found that your first defence should be drinking a glass of water or [caffeine-free] tea, rather than heading to the pantry,” Kirkpatrick says.
Further, it’s ideal to stop eating 2-3 hours before going to bed. If you’re actually hungry and you need a snack to head 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.
Below are some of the best snacks to have before bedtime.
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, says Kirkpatrick. In one small study, adults who drank 8 ounces (oz) of concentrated tart cherry juice twice a day for two weeks scored increased sleep time and sleep efficiency.
However if you choose juice, skip fruit juice concentrates, as these typically contain added sugar, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). When choosing a juice, the Cleveland Clinic advises choosing one that’s labelled 100 percent fruit juice, as it will contain more nutrients and fewer additives than a sweetened fruit juice or a juice concentrate. (But beware that even 100 percent fruit juice is usually quite high in sugar.) If you find cherry juice too tart, try diluting it to taste with water or plain seltzer.
BEST: ALMONDS OR WALNUTS
“A small handful of nuts will satisfy cravings and hunger while inducing sleepiness,” Kirkpatrick says. That’s because nuts like walnuts and almonds contain natural melatonin, protein, and magnesium.
In addition, research from 2022 suggests that magnesium intake is associated with longer sleep and better sleep quality. As the Cleveland Clinic notes, 1 oz of dry roasted almonds (about 24 nuts) provides 80 milligrams (mg) of magnesium, so they are a good source of this mineral. 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.
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 fibre) provides the body with high-re carbs to keep you full, while low-fat milk contains the amino acid tryptophan. “Tryptophan produces serotonin in the body, which is converted into melatonin, inducing sleep,” Kirkpatrick says.
Dairy foods like yogurt contain melatonin, which improves sleep efficiency, Valdez says. Yogurt is rich in calcium (272 mg per cup of non-fat Greek yogurt, according to the USDA), a bone-building mineral that also plays a role in processing hormones that help you sleep, according to Sleep Doctor. (Those hormones would be tryptophan and melatonin.) Just make sure you select plain, unsweetened yogurt, to which you can add fresh fruit, vanilla extract, or cinnamon.
BEST: ROASTED CHICK PEAS
Roasted chickpeas are a nutrient-dense, low-calorie snack that’s high in protein, fibre, 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 110 calories, 5 g of protein, and 5 g of fibre, making it a good source of the latter.
And below are the snacks to avoid.
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, CDCES, the owner of Genki Nutrition in New York City. 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.
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 for late in the day, as these bars are typically lower in sugar than milk chocolate. But chocolate is also a source of caffeine which is 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. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 1 cup of brewed coffee contains about 96 mg of caffeine, whereas 1 oz of chocolate with 70 to 85 percent cacao has about 22.7 mg; and 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.
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 also points out that alcohol’s initial sedative effect wears off once the alcohol is metabolised, so this can lead to sleep disruption too.
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 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.
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.