Late-night cravings are not only normal — there are also some sound biological reasons you might want a snack before bedtime.
But late-night cravings can turn into a late-night disaster if you’re choosing the wrong snacks.
Sometimes cravings can show up as a sweet tooth, but ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, and sugar-rich trail mix aren’t going to help you get the sleep you need. The same goes for fast food or processed potato chips.
This becomes twice as important if your goal is weight loss, as nighttime eating can become a significant inhibitor of weight loss[*].
On the other hand, if you choose the right foods in the right quantities, a late night snack may be just what you need to promote muscle growth and cardiometabolic health — two factors that can support a healthy weight[*].
So what foods should you choose when those late-night cravings hit? Read on to learn more.
When choosing nighttime snacks, it makes sense that those foods should include nutrients that will help you sleep.
By far, the most sleep-supportive hormone in your body is melatonin. Melatonin is synthesized through a downstream conversion process of several nutrients, starting with the amino acid tryptophan, which converts to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which eventually turns into melatonin.
There are several more steps in that process, but for simplicity’s sake, that should cover what you need to know.
With this in mind, foods that increase the production of any of these intermediates can enhance your body’s production of melatonin and support your sleep cycle[*].
Breast milk is a perfect example of the power of melatonin in inducing sleep. When a baby wakes up in the middle of the night crying, mom swoops in with her melatonin-rich breast milk to nurse the baby back to sleep. That peaceful expression on a sleeping baby’s face? You have melatonin to thank for that.
Breast milk is naturally high in melatonin, which is why babies are nursed to sleep. Want to sleep like a baby? Get more melatonin in your diet.
Along with melatonin, there are a couple of other nutrients that are essential for a good night’s sleep, these include zinc and magnesium,
Zinc plays a role in central nervous system regulation, a crucial biological component to healthy sleep.What’s more, people who typically get more restful sleep tend to have higher levels of zinc in their blood[*].
Magnesium, on the other hand, regulates the neurotransmitter GABA, which creates a calming effect by decreasing the activity of your central nervous system — that means less anxious thoughts keeping you up[*].
In addition to sleep-supportive nutrients, maintaining steady blood sugar throughout the night can have a positive impact on sleep as well. The best way to snack for blood sugar regulation is to keep the carbs low and the fat and protein high.
Next time you get a late-night snack craving, try one of these sleep-promoting snack options:
#1 Canned Oysters
Oysters are an excellent source of zinc, and they’re also high in protein to help keep your blood sugar stable. Buying oysters canned is easier than getting fresh oysters, but if you have the time and energy to enjoy some fresh oysters, by all means, treat yourself[*].
#2 Pumpkin Seeds and Sunflower Seeds
Pumpkin seeds are another food that’s naturally rich in zinc. You can go for the in-shell variety, or have them without the shell; the zinc is in the seed itself. They’re also a good source of magnesium, so you’ll be calming down that nervous system from two angles[*].
Sunflower seeds are naturally rich in melatonin, so combining these two seed varieties will provide you with a full-spectrum of sleep-supportive nutrients[*].
Nuts are a great late-night snack because they’re rich in fat and also contain some protein. The only caution is to be sure you don’t overdo it as they can be pretty calorie-dense, and a half cup of nuts may take a while to digest. Stick to around ¼ cup or a handful of nuts.
Almonds and pistachios are natural sources of melatonin, and almonds come packed with magnesium as well[*].
#4 Cottage Cheese With Strawberries
Cottage cheese is naturally high in the amino acid tryptophan, which eventually converts to melatonin. It’s also a great source of protein, so it will help stabilize your blood sugar overnight. Adding strawberries not only gives you a hit of natural sweetness, but strawberries are also a source of melatonin[*][*].
#6 Salmon Cream Cheese Rolls
Salmon with cream cheese is an excellent snack from a macronutrient perspective — tons of protein and fat. Salmon is also a great source of melatonin, and it comes packed with omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D — two nutrients that help with the synthesis of serotonin[*][*].
#7 Glass of Milk
Okay, this one may seem a little plain, but not everyone wants to go big before bedtime. Milk is a natural source of melatonin, and as long as you’re getting the full-fat version (extra points for grass-fed) your blood sugar will appreciate the fat and protein,
#8 Caprese Salad
Tomato is one vegetable (actually a fruit) that’s been shown to be especially high in melatonin.. Adding in some creamy mozzarella will provide more fat and protein for blood sugar control, and generally just make the snack more appetizing[*].
#9 Celery With Nut Butter
Another vegetable source of melatonin is celery. In fact, even though these veggies are mostly water, it happens to be quite rich in melatonin. Adding some nut butter will round out your snack and help out your blood sugar.
Peanut butter is a fan favorite but go with almond butter for an extra hit of melatonin and magnesium[*].
Avocado is naturally rich in magnesium to help calm that nervous system, and it’s perfect for blood sugar control because it’s low in carbs, and rich in fat and fiber.
Enjoy your avocado as-is, or make some guacamole to dip some low-carb chips into. You can even slice your avocado in half and squeeze some lemon juice and sea salt on there for extra flavor[*].
Late-night cravings aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but understanding where they’re coming from can help you get ahead of making poor nutrition choices. Below are some of the most common reasons that you may be experiencing cravings.
Your circadian rhythm is your internal clock that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. Throughout a 24-hour period, your circadian rhythm elicits different cascades of hormones to keep your body on track regarding your physical needs for nutrients and rest.
Research shows that in the evenings, your circadian rhythm increases your body’s cravings for foods that are sweet, starchy, and salty[*].
It’s hypothesized that this increase in cravings at night is due to your body’s awareness that it’s about to engage in an extended fast as you sleep. Therefore, your circadian rhythm insights food cravings to make sure that you have properly feasted before your overnight fast[*].
Whether physical or psychological, stress seems to be at the root of most health-related imbalances. And when it comes to cravings, there is a clear biological explanation.
When you experience stress, your body releases the hormone cortisol. Cortisol, in turn, affects other branches of hormones in your body — including your hunger hormones. Specifically, high levels of cortisol are associated with increased levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin[*].
Ghrelin signals your body to eat, which can be experienced as increased cravings that eventually lead to weight gain[*].
Low Blood Sugar
Low blood sugar at night can have a significant impact on your sleep cycle. This condition is called nocturnal hypoglycemia. Skipping meals, exercise before bedtime, and alcohol consumption before bedtime are all factors that can contribute to low blood sugar while you sleep.
While this condition is most common in those with diabetes, people without diabetes can also experience low blood sugar at night, which may lead to sleep disturbances.
Your Body Is Lacking Nutrients
While most of the time cravings for foods that are high in sugar or fat come from stress, imbalanced blood sugar, or your circadian rhythm — some cravings come from bodily wisdom. If you aren’t properly nourishing your body, you may experience cravings for foods that are rich in the nutrients you’re missing.
If sleep has been an issue for you, take a look at your diet and make sure that you’re consuming enough calories daily, and that the majority of those calories are coming from nutrient-dense foods.
Keep Calories Low
Keeping your nighttime snacks low in calories is especially important if you are trying to maintain or lose weight. It doesn’t take much to satisfy a craving if you’re eating mindfully, so try to keep your nighttime snacks somewhere between 200 and 400 calories.
Choose High Nutrient-Density Snacks
Consuming empty calories from foods that don’t help to promote sleep can further disrupt your sleep cycle.
For this reason, choose snacks like the ones listed above to ensure you’re getting the most bang for your late-night snacking buck.
Sugar prior to bed may cause restlessness and lower-quality sleep[*]. This likely has to do with alternating highs and lows in blood sugar, which equates to uneven energy. Sugar also depletes magnesium, which is critical to a relaxed, restful night’s sleep[*].
Allow Some Time To Digest
If you’re someone who experiences late-night cravings, then get ahead of them by planning your snacks at least 30 minutes before you plan to go to bed. This will give your body a chance to digest and get those sleep-promoting nutrients into your system. It will also help you avoid issues like acid reflux or indigestion.
If you’ve got the late-night munchies, put down that bag of chips and opt for some healthy snacks instead. Foods rich in protein, healthy fats, and sleep-supportive nutrients will get you the rest you need while also satisfying your food cravings.
Healthy eating doesn’t have to be a hassle either; most of the snacks listed above take no more than five minutes to prepare.