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Is Eating Before Bed Actually Unhealthy?

You worked (or worked out) super late and have nothing in the fridge, and your howling stomach is begging for something, anything to refuel you after a long day. We've all done it. And while there have been various studies on eating at night and its effects on your metabolism, nutritionists say that it's more about the nutrients you put into your body, like loading up on fiber to fill you, than the exact time you chow down.

Here, what you need to know about eating at night and which foods are best to eat before bed. (Check out these snacking tips to get you through the rest of the day.)

Is Eating Before Bed Unhealthy?

One study published in the journal Cell Metabolism found that mice that had access to the same high-fat diet for only eight hours, namely during daylight hours, were healthier and slimmer than those who had access to the food for the whole day—despite consuming the same number of calories.

Other research states that eating late can rev your metabolism, and that protein can give you an energy boost for your morning workout the next day.  More studies dispute the potential benefits of late-night eating and claim that the hormones that control satiation slow down later in the day, but research has stated that a small snack toward bedtime is fine—especially if your hunger could mess with your sleep.

"Going to bed with a growling stomach can make it difficult to fall asleep, or worse, increase the temptation to eat in the middle of the night if hunger disrupts sleep," says Heather Mangieri, R.D., a board-certified specialist in sports nutrition and spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The key is to nail the combo of protein and a little carbs: like snacking on nuts or Greek yogurt and pairing that with fruit or veggies. (Keep reading for more on the worst and best foods to eat before bed or late at night.)

Ultimately, researchers say, your late-night eating habits come down to self-control in making nutritious choices. "Food restriction in humans is much less controlled, and relies more on keeping a healthy environment and willpower—something many people struggle with," says Mangieri. "The evening hours are when most people will admit to out-of-control eating since that's the time when the work is done and it's time to relax."

Sometimes eating late at night is our only choice, though. With longer work hours and post-work obligations, some days you don't even think about dinner until 8 p.m. The good news, according to Mangieri, is it's less about what time you're dining, and more about what foods are on your plate. (Take a look at celebrity chefs' best midnight snack ideas before you get cooking).

Here's what to remember if you're eating at night and which foods are best to eat before bed.

The Best Foods to Eat Before Bed

  • Follow the 30–30 rule: Active young women who had 30 grams of protein about 30 minutes before sleep experienced no negative metabolic effects, the British Journal of Nutrition reports. In fact, before-bed protein built muscle in a study on strength-training men, and experts believe the same would be true for women. The protein should come from casein in dairy products like cottage cheese (a cup contains a little less than 30 grams). It’s slow digesting and will leave you satiated without spiking blood sugar. (It's worth noting: If you typically don’t snack after dinner, there’s likely no benefit to adding a high-protein snack before bed.)
  • Include some carbs for sleep benefits: If you have trouble drifting off, include a small amount of healthy carbs with your protein snack when eating before bed, like half a slice of whole-grain toast or a few grapes, says Shape Brain Trust member Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., R.D. author of The New Power Eating. These can help the body move the essential amino acid tryptophan into the brain to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep.

The Worst Foods to Eat Before Bed

  • Skip high- fat and -sugar treats: The worst foods you can eat before bed are high in fat or sugar, says Kleiner: “High-fat foods take a long time to digest, and sugar increases your blood sugar, both of which can disturb sleep.”
  • Reconsider the whey: Whey protein causes insulin spikes that could keep you up as well, says Kleiner.
  • Cut the carbs: "If dinner is at 8 p.m. and bedtime is two hours later, the meal size should be smaller and include a smaller amount of carbohydrates," says Mangieri. "Stick to a serving of lean protein and load up on veggies so you'll still meet your nutrient needs without all the late-night calories."

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