You're just about to crawl into bed...and hunger strikes. You know late-night snacks aren't great for your waistline, or your slumber. So should you try to ignore the craving—or eat something small? And if so, what should you have? Here’s my advice about what to do, and how to ward off pre-bedtime hunger in the first place.
First, figure out if you're actually hungry
The first step is to determine if you’re truly in need of nourishment, or experiencing a false hunger triggered by habit, anxiety, or the desire for a reward. To do that, check in with your body: Do you have physical signs of hunger, like a growling tummy? When did you last eat, and what did you have?
For most people, a well-balanced meal (such as a generous amount of veggies plus lean protein, healthy fat, and a bit of carbs) should leave you feeling full for about four hours. So if you ate a healthy dinner less than four hours ago, and you don’t have any physical symptoms of hunger, blame “mind hunger.”
If your craving is driven by habit (for example, maybe you always pair snacking with watching Netflix before bed), mix up your routine. Do something else with your hands as you veg out in front of the TV. Try doodling, playing with a Rubik’s Cube, or doing anything else that keeps you occupied.
If your hunger is triggered by emotions (like stress, or anger), choose another way to self-soothe. Listen to a five-minute guided meditation. Or see if writing in a journal will do the trick.
Eating when you aren’t physically hungry is like putting on a sweater when you’re not cold: It’s not helpful, and can just make you more uncomfortable. On the flip side, getting to the root of what’s steering you to the kitchen can help improve your mental well being, and break the pattern of distracting yourself with food.
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Let's say you establish that you really are physically hungry. Now try to assess how hungry you feel. Do you just need a few bites to take the edge off? If so, have a quarter cup of nuts or seeds (a serving about the size of a golf ball). The protein, good fat, and fiber they contain will fill you up, but not leave you feeling stuffed and sluggish. What's more, as much as 30% of the calories in nuts aren’t digestible, which means the calorie count may be a third less than what the label states. And that's ideal since you're about to be sedentary for about seven to eight hours.
If you think you’re too hungry for just nuts, have some fruit too. Kiwis are a good choice, since they’ve been shown to help with sleep. A study published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that men and women who ate two kiwis one hour before bed fell asleep more than 35% faster, slept more soundly, and experienced a 13.4% increase in total sleep time, compared to before the kiwi intervention.
Rethink your dinner
If you’re so hungry that nuts, seeds, and fresh fruit won’t cut it, you may want to reexamine the composition and timing of your dinner meal. I’ve had clients who weren't eating enough at dinner and then had trouble falling asleep. Or they'd wake up in the middle of the night to binge. That's because a low-calorie soup, salad, or diet frozen dinner at 7:00 pm just isn’t going to keep you sated until a 10 or 11 o'clock bedtime.
For a healthy and satisfying dinner, make veggies the bulk of your meal. The ideal amount is at least two cups in their raw state (about the size of two baseballs). Add protein from seafood, poultry, eggs, or pulses; and a good fat like avocado or EVOO. Top it all off with a small portion of whole food carbs like spaghetti squash, quinoa, or sweet potato.
Bonus: This type of balanced meal will also help you catch higher-quality Zs. Recent research suggests that eating too little fiber and too much sugar and saturated fat (the kind found in fatty meat and dairy products) can disturb sleep, while higher fiber meals lead to deeper slumber.
Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and consultant for the New York Yankees. See her full bio here.