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By Tom Hutchison  

As bedtime approaches, a late night snack is often hard to resist. For some, the thought of a quick sandwich or a bowl of cereal generally seems like a good idea; a little snack to promote a good night’s sleep.

For others, buttery pieces of toast or a couple of biscuits usually do the trick and keep those hunger pangs at bay. And who can blame us? After all, bedtime for most people comes a few hours after dinner, so we’re bound to feel hungry. However, could indulging in a midnight snack be a bad idea?

Caught red handed, guilty late night snack

Sleep Disruption

One of the potential issues with eating shortly before going to bed is that it could cause sleep disruption. There are a number of possible reasons for this when snacking late at night; one of which is heartburn. Heartburn happens when acidic stomach fluid rises back up to the throat causing a burning sensation, and lying down soon after having eaten can cause or exacerbate these symptoms.

Another problem can be indigestion. It is not exactly easy trying to fall asleep feeling bloated and uncomfortable; two symptoms associated with indigestion. It is obvious that a lack of sleep is a bad thing, but what you may not know is that a lack of sleep can also have a negative effect on weight loss. So if eating late causes you to lose sleep, then for the sake of your waistline, it would be beneficial to stop.  

Does Midnight Snacking Lead to Weight Gain?

A study from Northwestern University, Illinois, was widely reported in 2009 because it showed that eating late at night might well lead to weight loss.

The problem is that this study was on mice, and applying these results to humans is somewhat controversial. In fact, there have been numerous other studies since, showing that the particular time of day that you eat doesn’t matter from a weight gain perspective.

An article published in the British Medical Journal reviewed numerous studies from around the world and came to the conclusion that there is not a link between night-time eating and weight gain if you are staying within your daily caloric needs. The problem arises if your midnight snacking causes you to go above your daily caloric need. More often than not, a late night snack will be an added extra in terms of calories. So with the fact that the body will store excess calories as fat, a late night snack could lead to unwanted weight gain.

If you find that you are starving before bed, maybe try having 4-5 small meals a day as opposed to 3 large meals. This will reduce the time between meals and may help with appetite control. The other issue is to do with the type of foods that are associated with late night snacking.

People tend to eat without much thought late at night, grazing out of boredom and going for whatever is easiest. It is no great surprise either; when you’re tired and watching the TV you don’t exactly want to spend time preparing a healthy fruit salad when a bag of crisps is so much easier and quicker to get. But it’s that bag of crisps that will lead to unnecessary weight gain, and could potentially disrupt your sleep.

The Best and Worst Foods Before Bed

Just like any other time in the day, it would be a good idea to avoid unhealthy foods that would lead to you having an unbalanced and highly calorific diet. There are, however, certain foods that would be especially detrimental to your sleep. Unsurprisingly, any food or drink containing caffeine would be a bad idea just before bed as it will keep you wide-awake. Fatty foods and foods with lots of protein are a bad idea as they take longer to digest, so can lead to bloating and feeling full, making it hard to sleep.

Very sugary food may also be a bad, as the resulting boost of energy would have a similar effect to caffeine and keep you awake. Eating spicy food and highly acidic foods will increase the acidity of your stomach and can lead to heartburn. Drinking alcohol is also a bad idea as it can reduce REM sleep and can lead to dehydration.

Conversely, a small snack of a certain food before bed can be beneficial, and can aid sleep. Bananas are good as they contain high levels of potassium, which has been shown to regulate sleep patterns, and they also contain magnesium, which in simple terms can help relax the body.

Bananas also contain tryptophan, an amino acid which helps produce serotonin, which in turn can be converted to melatonin, which is a chemical that helps to regulate sleep and has a calming effect. Complex carbohydrates, such as a bowl of whole-grain cereal and milk, can also be beneficial as they also promote serotonin, and in turn, melatonin. The milk is also beneficial, as it too contains tryptophan.    

So it seems that eating before bed isn’t necessarily bad for you, and it is what you eat not when you eat that is most important. So if you are going to eat an hour or two before bed, make sure it is healthy, beneficial and light, and won’t impact upon your sleep.