The truth is, a desire for late night snacking (or any hunger signals beyond dinnertime) can be due to a number of things. What you’re seeking to eat can be an indicator of what’s happening internally as well. Sometimes, it’s hormonal cravings at play. Whereas other times, if it’s a sweet fix you’re after, it could be due to digestive or blood sugar disturbances. Equally, sometimes you’re hungry because you simply haven’t eaten enough. When it gets impulsive, or starts to impact your sleep, then it’s worth taking a closer look at what’s going on.
Here, we take a dive into the truth about late night snacking and just how detrimental (or beneficial) it really is for your health. Plus, a healthy late night snack idea that should really hit the spot.
Does Late Night Snacking Impact Your Health?
Most people assume that late night snacking can lead to weight gain. But does it really? The research on this is intriguing. In my view, the nutritional rationale for weight gain needs revising. Among nutrition and health science experts, it’s believed that weight gain is simply a question of balancing the ‘energy-in-energy-out’ mechanism of calorie intake. However, we now know that calorie counting isn’t the whole truth when it comes to weight management.
Instead, a widely accepted newer definition of obesity takes into account when you eat, as being incredibly important, and not just what you eat. In this way, obesity and weight gain is termed a chronobiological disease. Late night meals, or snacking can disrupt the circadian processes of the body, causing metabolic issues.
Late Night Eating & Weight Gain In Children
An epidemiological study involving primary school age kids was published in the journal, Nutrition. Known as the Healthy Growth Study, it investigated the association of late night overeating with breakfast habits and obesity. The sample was a group of children between the ages of 9 and 13 years. In this study, 1912 children took part and completed weight, height and physical activity analyses. Interestingly, late night overeating was associated with skipping breakfast, or smaller breakfast sizes the following day.
However, the authors noted an important distinction with the results of this study. They found that children who had low levels of physical activity on top of late night eating were associated with a greater increase in BMI and weight. The combination of late night snacking, subsequent meal skipping and low physical activity poses a real risk for metabolic issues, such as weight gain in children.
Late Night Snacking Increases Type 2 Diabetes Risk
With an obvious negative impact on weight, it’s no surprise that there’s an increased risk of developing other metabolic conditions, like type 2 diabetes. A recent Danish study confirms this finding. Food intake is prevalent among people with type 2 diabetes and is associated with higher BMIs. The authors of this clinical trial concluded that late-evening food intake raises cardiovascular and blood glucose impairments.
Of the 348 participants in the study, 42% reported frequent eating in the late evening, and 8% commonly continued to snack during the night. Also, people who are already overweight have a higher drive for late night eating. So it appears that once late night snacking begins, a habit forms and metabolic disruptions may ensue. Eventually, the hormonal and metabolic changes that occur in diabetes symptoms cause further cravings and snacking behaviour. Thus, a cycle manifests and it can be difficult to break. Clearly, it’s important to be aware of late-night snacking as it can have a series of negative health impacts.
Does Late Night Snacking Have Health Benefits?
Each person will vary, depending on snack habits and individual biology. The type of foods eaten and the timing of consumption appears to be relevant, as far as negative health impacts. But what about any health benefits to late night snacking? Some research suggests that among athletes, high protein snacks can promote muscle regeneration if consumed before bedtime. Generally, as long as the snack serves a purpose and it’s not devoid of nutrients, it can be true that late night snacking has some health benefits.
Snacking Promotes Better Sleep Quality & Duration
Sleep can influence diet choices, and diet can impact sleep. See where this is going? Epidemiological studies have revealed that people who don’t get adequate sleep are more likely to consume junk foods or refined carbohydrates. They’re also more likely to have irregular eating habits, with a tendency to eat later in the day. Unsurprisingly, these nutrient-poor foods can affect sleep quality, depth and duration.
Luckily, there’s a way to reverse this pattern and actually promote better rest and more restorative sleep. Foods such as milk and dairy, peanut butter, bananas, cacao all contain important sleep-inducing chemicals. Amino acids, B vitamins and minerals such as tryptophan, vitamin B6 and magnesium are all cofactor nutrients for serotonin and melatonin synthesis. Additionally, herbal teas like chamomile, passionflower and green tea all have restful polyphenols that relax the body and mind for sleep.
Chocolate Consumption Aids Sleep
Is your late night snack of choice chocolate? If so, you’ll be happy to know that there’s decent evidence in support of chocolate for a good night’s sleep. A 2021 study published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology assessed the timing of chocolate intake and its influence on sleep. Interestingly, changes to the participants’ microbiome were observed, which had upstream effects on sleep. Evening consumption of chocolate induced a more even timing of sleep episodes and onset, compared to morning intake. This means that chocolate appears to help modulate the duration of sleep, as well as the time it takes to fall asleep, according to this study. Another finding the authors noted was that 100g of chocolate for a fortnight, consumed either at morning or night had no bearing on weight gain.
How Can I Ensure I Have Healthy Snack Habits?
Checking in with yourself is a good way to make sure your late night snacking habits are healthy. Get a grip on your body and its signals, it always tells you what’s going on. Ask yourself some questions and see if you can discern what’s driving the need to eat. Here’s a few prompts to use next time you find yourself in the dark void of a kitchen, staring at the refrigerator.
Late Night Snack Screening Questions
- Am I hungry or just bored?
- Do I feel anxious, stressed, sad or worried?
- Am I cold and looking for something warm?
- Am I actually thirsty?
- Have I eaten enough good food today?
- Am I just overtired and need to sleep?
- Is this a habit or true hunger?
- Am I seeking food to replace another habit?
- Am I looking to eat to compensate for another feeling?
- For women, where am I in my cycle?
Late Night Healthy Snacks
So, if you’re really needing an evening snack, how can you make it count? What you eat, as long as it’s mindfully chosen, shouldn't cause any major issues. Here’s a couple of extra tips to ensure you’re late night snacks are healthy.
High Quality & Nutrient Dense
Snacks that are high in B vitamins, magnesium, protein and healthy fats are great to have on hand at night. Foods that contain refined sugar, starch, processed oils and fat should also be avoided. Nuts, seeds, dark chocolate, fruit, cheese or yoghurt make quick and easy options for a late night healthy snack.
Mindfully Eat Late At Night
Portion control is not usually something I focus on with food intake. But when it comes to snacking, it can be something that gets out of hand real quick. It’s important to be mindful of how much you’re eating when you go for a snack. Dispense yourself a few chips into a bowl, or break off a piece of chocolate from the bar. This makes it easier to not overeat as you’re focusing on what’s in front of you.
Sweet Dreams Vegan Chocolate Truffles
For a satisfied belly and calm mind before bed, check out these delicious vegan chocolate truffles. They’re packed with all the right nutrients that can promote a good sleep, while balancing blood sugar levels. Make ahead and keep in the fridge (you’ll get 24 truffles here!). Just a couple will do before you nip off to bed!
- 2 cups pitted Medjool dates
- 1 cup almond flour
- ¼ cup chia seeds
- ¼ cup flaxseed meal
- ¼ cup cacao powder
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- 2 tbsp almond milk
- Cacao powder
- Chia seeds
- Shredded coconut
- Place all the truffle ingredients in a food processor and pulse until the mixture comes together.
- Transfer the mixture to a small bowl.
- Roll the mixture into small balls and coat them with your coating of choice.
- Store in an airtight container for up to 7 days.
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