Best & Worst Late-Night Snacks, According to a Dietitian
We dive into the research and share the best and worst late-night snacks to eat when you're hungry and it's close to bedtime.
There are a number of reasons people eat after dinner, whether because of boredom, stress, cravings or physical hunger. But, there's also a lot of confusion around if you should eat after dinner. And, if it is OK, what are the best things to eat at that time.
"If you're hungry at night, you should eat something," says Sarah Pflugradt, M.S., RD, a family nutrition expert. "Eating at night will not slow down your metabolism and if you're smart about snacking, you won't gain weight either. Do a mental inventory of what you've eaten throughout the day and see what you've missed. Most often, it's going to be fruits, vegetables or dairy. If that's the case, get in that extra fiber and calcium," she says.
Aim to eat balanced meals of fiber, protein and healthy fat spaced every three to four hours throughout the day. This keeps blood sugar stable instead of crashing, spiking and leading to cravings at night. Boost protein intake too. Eating more protein during the day is associated with less desire to snack later in the evening. (Here are some healthy high-protein snack ideas to try.)
Late-Night Snacking Pros and Cons
You may have heard that eating after 8 p.m. isn't good for you, while others say it has nothing to do with the time but with what you're eating at that time. According to the research, it's both. Timing, quality of food and quantity of food all affect whether late-night noshing has positive or negative health effects.
Eating more calories than your body needs can lead to weight gain over time. Research presented at the 2020 European and International Conference on Obesity found that late-night eaters consume 40% of their daily calories after 6 p.m. Not only that, but the quality of those calories wasn't optimal, with snacks higher in sugar and fat and lower in fiber and protein. A 2014 study found that people who ate closer to bedtime ate more total daily calories; however, they did not have a higher body mass index. But another study found that consuming calories late into the evening was associated with a higher BMI.
Along with weight gain, late-night snacks could adversely affect metabolic health. One study found that a late-night dinner is associated with poor glycemic control in people with type 2 diabetes. And emerging research is uncovering that eating as late as 10 p.m. may negatively affect metabolic parameters, including glucose intolerance and reducing the breakdown of fat.
In summary, nighttime noshing usually leads to eating more calories and less nutrient-dense foods, which over time can impair blood sugar control and lead to weight gain. That said, no one wants to go to bed hungry. If you had a smaller or earlier dinner you may need a pre-bedtime snack. You can avoid some of these negative outcomes and still eat after 8 p.m. by choosing better-for-you options. Choose mostly snacks that pack protein, fiber and healthy fat. This combo slows the rise of blood sugar and is digested slowly, which will keep you full.
Here are five of the best and worst late-night snacks to try.
5 Best Late-Night Snacks
1. String Cheese
"A part-skim mozzarella cheese stick is a great late-night snack. It contains about 100 calories and 7 grams of protein. Protein is an important factor for any late-night snack because it keeps you feeling full," says registered dietitian Lauren Kaufman M.S., M.Ed., RD, CDN.
Or make a mini cheese board, adds Pflugradt: "A mini cheese board can help you feel like you are getting a pretty substantial snack. Pair a couple of cheese cubes with a few crackers, add grapes and some cucumber sticks and there you have some commonly missed nutrients—calcium and fiber." Try whole-grain crackers for some crunch and filling fiber.
"Walnuts are an awesome late-night snack because they naturally contain melatonin, a compound that supports healthy sleep," says Lauren Manaker, M.S., RDN, LD. "Plus, walnuts naturally contain magnesium, a mineral that can help calm nerve activity and help people get some healthy shut-eye," she says. (Learn more about the health benefits of walnuts.)
"Pistachios are full of melatonin too," says Pflugradt, "which may help you sleep better. And they also contain fiber and protein to help keep you fuller, longer. Go for the pistachios in the shells to help keep you busy and not go overboard. Choose either unsalted or lightly salted to cut down on sodium." (Here's more about why pistachios are so good for you.)
3. Greek Yogurt with Fruit
"Greek yogurt contains gut-friendly probiotics and protein to keep you full and stabilize blood sugar," says Lisa Young, Ph.D., RDN, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim. Young suggests pairing yogurt with tart cherries, which are rich in melatonin. Berries are a great option, too, because they are high in fiber.
Or make a peanut butter Greek yogurt dip, suggests Rebecca Clyde, M.S., RDN, CD, a cooking-for-one expert at Nourish Nutrition. "Dip crunchy celery, apples or graham crackers into it for a great way to add in some extra fruits and vegetables but also protein to keep you full and satisfied." Stir a spoonful of peanut butter into plain Greek yogurt and add a touch of sweetener, like maple syrup or honey.
If you've got a salty, crunchy craving after dinner, reach for popcorn. "Popcorn is a high-fiber snack that can keep you feeling satisfied until the morning," says Kristen Smith, M.S., RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Just be cautious with what you flavor it with—lay off large amounts of butter and salt, sprinkle with heart-healthy fats like olive oil, or fresh herbs." Buy single-serve bags or portion the popcorn out into a bowl to help keep calories in check instead of mindlessly eating out of the bag on the couch. (Here's how to make your own microwave popcorn.)
5. Whole-Wheat Toast with Peanut Butter
Whole-wheat toast and whole-grain crackers contain complex carbohydrates (think: fiber), which slow the rise of blood sugar. Pair with peanut butter, which has protein and healthy fat, and you'll stay full until the morning. "Peanut butter contains healthy fats that raise serotonin levels," says Young. "Serotonin is a feel-good mood hormone that may help you relax." You can also spread peanut butter on apple slices to satisfy your sweet tooth.
5 Worst Late-Night Snacks
"The acidic sauce and high-fat cheese that pizza is made of may cause you to wake up with a stomachache," says Smith. "Most traditional pizza options offer significant fat and calorie amounts, which may contribute to weight gain if eaten in excess at snacktime." Fat is digested slowly, so high-fat foods can lead to reflux, which is exacerbated if you lie down shortly after eating. Pizza crust is also high in refined carbohydrates, which impair healthy blood sugar metabolism.
2. Sugary Cereals
If you know, you know. There's definitely a nighttime cereal eaters club, because what's not to love about cereal? Well, for one, the sugar. "Eating cereal containing high amounts of sugar right before bed can cause a spike in your blood sugar and increase insulin levels, causing you to wake up feeling hungry," says Smith. "Cereal can be a suitable snack prior to bedtime, but choose high-fiber, lower-sugar options." A good rule of thumb is to choose one where the fiber plus the protein is more than the sugar.
There are about the same number of calories in 3 cups of popcorn as in 12 chips. But who eats just 12 chips? Chips are one of the worst offenders at night because they contain very few nutrients: no fiber and no protein, with some fat from the oil. Otherwise, they are mostly refined carbohydrates, which aren't great for you. Swap for popcorn or whole-grain crackers instead.
It's common to crave sweets after dinner. If you're not eating balanced meals throughout the day, it's no surprise your body wants sugar at night because it's the quickest form of energy. But sometimes you crave chocolate because you just want some chocolate—and that's OK. Satisfy your craving in a healthier way by getting rid of the candy and opting for fruit or dark chocolate instead. Candy is basically just added sugars with little to no nutritional value. An ounce of dark chocolate, on the other hand, has 15% of the recommended Daily Value of magnesium, a mineral linked to improved sleep. (Here are a few more health benefits of dark chocolate.)
5. Spicy Food
"Eating spicy foods at bedtime can cause your heart rate to increase, making it more difficult to fall asleep," says Smith. "It can also increase risk for acid reflux and tummy upset throughout the night." Heartburn and gas don't go well with optimal sleep, so skip the wasabi peas and opt for some roasted chickpeas or edamame with sea salt. And if dinner is spicy, have it on the earlier side so your food can digest before you hit the hay.
It's OK to eat after dinner but choose foods with fiber, protein and healthy fat instead of sugary, greasy foods. If you're trying to lose weight or manage diabetes, for example, take inventory of your late-night snacks to determine if they could be pushing you over your calorie or carb limit for the day and holding you back from reaching your goals.