The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


The Best Night-Time Snack

Posted in
Eat better

Thursday, Oct 04, 2012

The other night I received an email from a friend asking me for suggestions for the best late-night snack. Funny that I read it as I was eating a late-night snack! There is a common misconception that late-night snacking is “bad for you” and that somehow after a certain hour our body treats those calories different than other times of the day. There is also the misconception that certain foods are bad to snack on at night versus other times during the day. It is true that some studies have shown a link or an association between late-night eating and weight gain but upon further investigation the time of day was not the cause of the weight gain rather it was the overconsumption of calories. Studies have consistently shown that late-night eating does not actually cause weight gain if you stay within your body's daily caloric needs. The fact is that your body will store any extra calories as fat if you take in more calories than you burn in a day, regardless of the time of day in which you consume those excess calories.

So if you find yourself wanting a snack at night, think about why. If it is because of true physical hunger—discomfort, pain, or weakness caused by your body’s need to eat food for energy or fuel—then by all means have a small snack. But if you are eating because of psychological hunger—the desire to eat for non-physical reasons often triggered by boredom, anxiety, habit, loneliness, the sight and smell of food, or stress—then you might just want to hold back. If you find that you are ravenous at night it could mean that you are restricting your calories too severely during the day and that could trigger binge eating and overconsumption of calories. Try spreading your calories out better during the day so that you don’t feel so hungry at night and risk reaching for quick, high calorie foods that will lead to excess calories.

So my answer to my friend’s question was this—there is no “one” perfect or appropriate late-night snack. If you are staying within your calorie budget then there are many options that you can choose.

Keep these tips from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in mind:

  • Think of snacks as mini-meals that contribute nutrient-rich foods
  • Snack only when you are hungry
  • Keep portion control in mind
  • Put a small serving into a different bowl—do not eat directly form a multiple-serving package
  • Plan snacks ahead of time
You can also try:
  • Eating dinner a little later
  • Saving dessert for later in the evening
  • Going to bed earlier
While there are many foods that are appropriate for a late-night snack, keep in mind, you might want to consider avoiding foods that may interfere with falling asleep or your quality of sleep such as foods that feel heavy or upset your stomach. Here are some good potential snack options:
  • Whole-grain, low sugar cereal with no-fat or low-fat milk (probably my most frequent)
  • Fruit and nuts (another favorite)
  • Yogurt
  • Oatmeal and fruit
  • Oatmeal and nuts
  • Whole grain crackers and low-fat cheese
  • Veggies with a low-fat dressing for dipping if desired (carrots and cherry tomatoes are my favorite)
  • Air-popped popcorn (minus the butter and salt—try adding different spices for a twist)
  • Fruit smoothie
Oh and just what was I eating when I read her email? A frozen banana—it tastes just like ice cream! I also enjoy baked (or microwaved) apples or pears with a little bit of cinnamon (no sugar added)—I feel like I am eating apple pie (minus the excess sugar, fat and calories)!

What is your go-to night-time snack?