If you’re trying to drop a few pounds, you’ve probably heard a version of this advice about late-night snacking: No eating after 8 p.m. The reasoning sort of makes sense: Your metabolism slows down at night, so it may not be able to efficiently burn off those truffle-dusted fries you downed at 10. That’s not the mention the risks of heartburn and poor sleep associated with nighttime eating.
Yet, new research shows that eating after dark might not be as harmful as we had thought. That’s right, late-night eaters aren’t necessarily doomed to a life of next-day regrets. Here’s what you need to know about snacking smart past dark.
Eating at Night: Is It Really That Bad?
Let’s be honest, most of us are not on our best behavior when we nosh at night. Plus, research shows that food eaten late doesn’t feel as satisfying as it does earlier in the day, so we tend to consume more of it.
“The problem isn’t necessarily eating at night. It’s what people typically eat at night,” explains Gluck. “If you’re eating dinner at 10 p.m., you’re probably having a big meal and a glass of wine. If you’re out socializing, you tend to overeat anyway. And if you’re at home watching TV, which is associated with mindless eating of chips and ice cream, you’re not likely eating carrots.”
“Your idea of your go-to Netflix food probably involves buttery popcorn — but that’s where you’re going wrong.”
So far, the bulk of research on the health effects of nighttime eating has been done on shift workers or people suffering from night-eating syndrome, rather than those of us who succumb to the occasional bar nachos or pizza delivery. “There isn’t a ton of science to support that eating later matters, if you’re eating the same amount of calories throughout the day,” explains Marci Gluck, PhD, director of behavioral sciences for the National Institutes of Health in Phoenix.
Some research suggests nighttime eating may actually boost your ability to burn calories the next day. The key is to make your bedtime snack an actual snack (not just junk). Case in point: A research team from Florida State University gave eleven active college-age men a variety of 150-calorie shakes, about 30 minutes before bedtime. The drinks were made of either 30 grams of carbs, 30 grams of whey protein (which digests quickly) or 30 grams of casein protein (which digests more slowly). Another group received a zero-calorie drink, to simulate going to bed hungry. In the morning, researchers found that the men who drank the shakes had faster metabolisms than those who had consumed the zero-calorie drink.
Healthy Late-Night Snacks DO Exist
Your idea of your go-to Netflix food probably involves buttery popcorn — but that’s where you’re going wrong. You should be thinking protein, instead. Consuming a small snack consisting of mostly protein just before bed won’t necessarily cause you to gain weight, says Amber Kinsey, Ph.D., of the department of nutrition, food and exercise sciences at Florida State University.
In fact, when combined with exercise, a nighttime hit of protein might be especially potent. Kinsey and her fellow researchers tested the same whey, casein and carb-based drinks on 37 sedentary obese women over a four-week period, asking them to participate in two days of weekly strength training and one day of cardio during the study. The combination resulted in small increases in lean muscle mass and decreases in body fat for the women. However, those who drank the casein shake also reported that they weren’t as famished in the morning as those who consumed whey protein or carbs.
Here’s What to Nosh On At Night
So what is casein, anyway? This dairy protein is found in products like cottage cheese, milk or Greek yogurt (or in powder form as a supplement). “This kind of protein is slowly absorbed up to eight hours and may provide a source of protein for people who exercise first thing in the morning without eating,” explains Fabio Comana, professor of exercise science at San Diego State University and spokesperson for the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
The benefits of casein are best experienced straight up, without added sugar or carbs, says Kinsey. So opt for a snack of unsweetened Greek yogurt instead of a sweet parfait. That way your late-night snack will be enough to keep your stomach from growling (and distract you from the Ben & Jerry’s lurking in your fridge).