Should You Eat a Bedtime Snack?

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When the answer is yes, choose wisely.

One of the most frequent questions people ask me is, "Can I eat before bed?" Many folks believe it's "bad" to eat a bedtime snack because it will cause unwanted weight gain. But that's not always the case. Whether you should be eating at night needs to be examined on an individual basis. Each person has her or her own habits, mealtimes, activity levels and calorie needs. If you've met your daily calorie limit by consuming a hefty breakfast, lunch and dinner, with perhaps a snack or two in between, eating a bedtime snack is not a good idea. Regularly exceeding your individual daily calorie limit can pack on the pounds.

However, if you have not reached your calorie limit for the day and you are hungry at night, a snack may be right for you. But remember: Snacks are mini-meals and opportunities to nourish your body with foods and nutrients you may have missed out on throughout the day. For example, if you did not meet the recommendation for your three daily servings of dairy, a bedtime snack is the perfect chance for yogurt and fruit or cheese and whole grain crackers. Nighttime eating is not the time to indulge in a bag of chips or a tub of ice cream. Regularly overindulging in foods that are overloaded with calories, fat, sodium and sugar will lead to weight gain and increase your risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

Before choosing a bedtime snack, keep in mind that it should be around 125 to 200 calories and well-balanced with protein, fiber, healthy fat or all three. Foods with these nutrients help keep you satisfied since they take longer to digest. Here are five bedtime snack ideas that fit the bill:

Leftover soup. Cozy up to a warm bowl of vegetable or chicken noodle soup that contains fiber, protein or both. English muffin pizza: Top a whole-grain English muffin with 1 tablespoon of tomato sauce, shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese and whatever leftover vegetables you have in the refrigerator. Pop the English muffin in the oven (or toaster oven) until the cheese is melted.
Cottage cheese and fruit. Cottage cheese is one of the most underappreciated foods. It contains a nice balance of protein, fat (if you choose low fat) and carbs. Top it with sliced berries or melon to add fiber and help satisfy your nighttime sweet tooth. If you're more of a savory person, top cottage cheese with sliced avocado and a sprinkle of sea salt.
Oatmeal. This stick-to-your-ribs whole grain is a fabulous way to fill up before bed. Top it with a tablespoon of chopped peanuts or almonds, or swirl in a tablespoon of peanut butter for some added protein. If you don't want to fuss in the kitchen, many markets sell single oatmeal cups. Be wary, however, about options that have lots of added sugar.
Avocado toast. Mash one-quarter of an avocado and spread it on whole-grain toast. Top it with sliced cherry tomatoes and sprinkle it with kosher salt. Drizzle it with sriracha or hot sauce for extra spice.
Still hungry? If you had a filling bedtime snack but still aren't satisfied, it's time to reflect on what's going on. Are you eating out of boredom, stress or some other emotional reason? Are you choosing the right foods to snack on? Are you giving the food enough time to digest? It takes your brain about 20 to 30 minutes to signal to the body that you're satisfied, and perhaps you did not wait long enough for the message to get through.

If you're really at a loss for why you're still hungry, your best bet is to seek the advice of a registered dietitian who can delve into your eating patterns, calorie needs and medical issues. Sometimes, it takes a pair of outside eyes to really see what's going on.