You’ve probably been in this position before. It’s late at night; it’s been hours since you had dinner, and your thoughts have turned to eating some sort of food. Maybe it’s a craving for one particular item; maybe it’s just a sense that your sleep would be markedly improved by snacking on something before going to bed. You’re reasonably sure that this is a bad idea, but you open the cupboard or the fridge anyway.
Late-night snacking is, very literally, a guilty pleasure. But it can also be one with notable consequences, which may translate into an uptick on the scale the following morning or a general sense of something being off. Eating late at night can give the body far more calories to process over the course of a day, turning what may have been normal eating into something much less healthy. Heather Cunningham, MS, RD, CNSC, a registered dietitian, noted via email that “it’s not really about when you eat the calories, but the total calories that you consume throughout the entire day that matters. If you eat an entire pizza at noon or midnight in addition to the rest of your day’s caloric intake, you are consuming excess calories that will be stored as fat.”
Bryant Terry, author of a number of cookbooks including the recent Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, & Southern Flavors Remixed, cited a recent break from late snacking as helping him lose weight. “If I ever stay up late snacking, as a rule, I keep it to things like fresh fruit, smoothies, non-dairy yogurt, and freshly-popped popcorn without a lot of fat added,” he said via email. Terry’s cookbooks offer a balance between savory flavors and ingredients that are sometimes unexpected, but are deeply satisfying. Alternately: the recipes in books like Afro-Vegan and Vegan Soul Kitchen do an astonishingly good job of translating food that wouldn’t normally be associated with vegan fare into rich, satisfying dishes.
If you’re going to snack, avoiding excess is key. Cunningham recommends balance: “It is beneficial to combine a carbohydrate with a protein. By eating a carb with a protein (an orange and an ounce of almonds), digestion is slowed down since nuts are a protein/healthy fat. This takes longer for our body to digest and will keep you satisfied longer.” She cited snacks like Greek yogurt, hummus, and guacamole (in controlled portions) as options for snacking without too many calories.
Terry cited one of his own recipes as a favorite for snacking later at night. “When I am craving something really savory and I want to indulge, I make these Creole-Spiced Plantain Chips from my new book. They are deep-fried so I try not to eat them late too often. Damn are they good, though.”
Late-night snacking can also involve preparation for the following day’s eating. Terry mentioned that he will sometimes make snacks in large enough portions to consume throughout the day. “I often make smoothies in bulk so I can have some for breakfast or after working out,” he said. “I also make a lot of popcorn so I have some for the next day to snack on.” In terms of foods to avoid later at night, he advised. “I would steer clear of processed refined carbohydrates like chips, candy, and bready things. In fact, I would avoid anything with flour and processed sugars.”
The same rules that apply to snack foods can also apply to drinks had late at night. For beverages, Cunningham suggested an alternative to morecalorie-heavy options. “An infuser (basically a water bottle with an inner chamber to place slices of fruit, vegetables or fresh herbs) is an alternative to juice and flavor water without contributing significant calories,” she said. “Adding mint leaves, lemon, or a slice of cucumber to water will give some flair to your beverage without caloric sabotage.”
Cunningham also pointed out that late-night cravings may be preventable. “[A]sk yourself if you are truly hungry at night,” she noted. “You may need to have more calories during the day, possibly in the form of snacks. People that get those nighttime hunger pains are, at times, over-restrictive during the day.” As satisfying as a snack as midnight approaches can be, it may well be even more satisfying (and healthier) to not have that craving at all.
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