Best and Worst Late-Night Snacks, According to a Dietitian
There are many reasons people eat after dinner, whether because of boredom, stress, cravings or physical hunger. But, there's also a lot of confusion about if you should eat after dinner, if it is OK to eat and what are the best things to eat at that time. Read on to find out what research and dietitians say about late-night snacking.
What Experts Say About Late-Night Snacking
"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 fats spaced every three to four hours throughout the day. This keeps blood sugar stable instead of crashing, spiking and leading to cravings at night. Pflugardt also adds that boosting protein intake is also important—Eating more protein during the day is associated with less desire to snack later in the evening.
Late-Night Snacking Pros and Cons
While snacking may not necessarily be a drawback according to Pfulgardt, you may have heard that eating after 8 p.m. isn't good for you. But, you may have also heard that the timing of your evening meal and snack is not an issue but what you're eating at that time matters. According to 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, the quality of those calories wasn't optimal, with snacks higher in sugar and fat and lower in fiber and protein. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Obesity also found that women who had a late-night dinner or bedtime snack had a higher chance of being overweight or obese.
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 impact 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.
Still, no one wants to go to bed hungry. If you had a smaller or an earlier dinner, you might need a pre-bedtime snack. You can avoid some of these negative outcomes and still eat after 8 p.m. by choosing nutrient-dense options—snacks that are packed with protein, fiber and healthy fats. This combo slows the rise of blood sugar and is digested slowly, keeping 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—you have some commonly missed nutrients—calcium and fiber. You can also try including 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.
"Pistachios are full of melatonin, too, which may help you sleep better," says Pflugradt, "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."
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.
Rebecca Clyde, M.S., RDN, CD, a cooking-for-one expert at Nourish Nutrition, suggests making a peanut butter Greek yogurt dip. "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," she says. She adds, "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 the 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," she adds. You can also make your own microwave popcorn with our recipe.
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 is filled with 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," she adds. 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. She adds, "Most traditional pizza options offer significant fat and calorie amounts, which may contribute to weight gain if eaten in excess at snack time."
Fat is digested slowly, so high-fat foods can lead to reflux, which is exacerbated if you lie down shortly after eating. The pizza crust is also high in refined carbohydrates, which impair healthy blood sugar metabolism.
2. High-Sugar 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 added 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," adds Smith. A good rule of thumb is to choose one where the amount of fiber and protein combined is more than the sugar.
Did you know that there are about the same 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 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.
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 the 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. Take a look at our Healthy High-Protein Snacks for additional late-night snack ideas. 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.