Everyone engages in a little midnight snacking from time to time. It’s human, after all; sometimes we’re just hungry. However, for those who enjoy late-night snacks on a regular basis, or those who habitually wake up hungry in the middle of the night, there might be an underlying cause for concern.
Causes of Late Night Hunger
Generally speaking, there are three main causes of late-night hunger: habit, boredom, and not eating enough during the day. The first two are rather straightforward and, for most, can be addressed with a few behavioral changes. The third cause, however, could be an indication of a deeper issue.
Stress and Snacking
Unmitigated stress, for example, can lead to disruptions in eating patterns such as intentional or unintentional over-restriction, appetite loss, and overeating. In these cases, midnight snacking could simply be overeating, or it could be an indication that the person is consuming too few calories throughout the day.
When It Might Be Harmful
For those without deeper issues at play, however, the answer to whether or not midnight snacking is bad for you is disappointingly ambiguous: it depends. It depends on what is being consumed, how much is being consumed, and whether or not the late-night consumption is leading to or stemming from other concerns such as sleeping problems. It also depends on how often you’re snacking.
What You’re Eating
If you wake up due to a grumbling stomach, it’s best to eat something small and nutritious. This helps to prevent the food from throwing off the body’s circadian rhythm — the natural cycle that keeps people awake during the day and asleep at night — by keeping the hormones responsible for sleep and hunger at time-appropriate levels.
How Much You’re Eating
How much food you’re consuming after hours is important for the same reason as what is being consumed: its impact on the hormones responsible for sleep and hunger. This factor also matters because a high caloric intake in the middle of a rest period may not be the best for heart health. The fats contained in such meals linger in the bloodstream longer, which is likely detrimental in the long run.
When It Becomes a Problem
For most people, midnight snacking is occasional and harmless. For others, however, it may cross the line into clinical significance. Research shows a link between late night eating and eating disorders, namely night eating syndrome and binge eating disorder.Those with night eating syndrome experience nighttime overeating and sleep disturbances, both of which can impact daily functioning and overall quality of life. Binge eating disorder prompts people to consume large quantities of food in a short period of time, even if they aren’t hungry, and often in response to an emotional trigger. Both conditions are psychiatric in nature and have effective treatments.
What About Weight?
Some experts believe a calorie is a calorie regardless of when it is consumed, and therefore as long as the calories in do not exceed the calories out, a person will not gain weight. However, some studies indicate food eaten late at night may lead to weight gain even if the total number of calories remains the same day to day, perhaps due to the fluctuating activity of hormones. This aspect requires more research.
Worst Midnight Snacks
The worst midnight snacks to have are those high in calories, fat, or sugar, or heavy on the grease. While tasty, such foods may, in the short term, cause wakefulness, heartburn, and gas, and contribute long-term to weight gain. Such foods include
- fried foods
- ice cream
- sugary cereals
Best Midnight Snacks
Much remains to be learned regarding the effects of late-night eating on the body, but generally speaking, a midnight snack now and then is no cause for concern, particularly if that snack is healthy. The following are some nutritious options should you find yourself awake with nighttime hunger:
- almond butter
- cheese and crackers
- fruit such as cherries, banana, or kiwi
- hot cereal or oatmeal with no added sugar
- pistachios or pumpkin seeds
- protein smoothie
- trail mix
Midnight Snacking Overall
In conclusion, the topic of midnight snacking as a whole is nuanced, and more research needs to be done to thoroughly determine its effects on the body. That being said, experts agree a midnight snack now and then is harmless, and the best midnight snacks are those that are small in portion and dense in nutrition.For people for whom late-night eating is a physical or mental health concern, be sure to reach out to your physician for guidance and support. Our eating and sleeping habits are often a window into our overall wellbeing and are invaluably important to take note of and take care of.