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The Worst (and Best) Food for a Late-Night Snack

I’m the queen of the late-night snack. I picked up the habit as a college student living in San Diego, finishing way too many nights at 24-hour Mexican food joints. Ever since my first taste of those carne asada fries (basically nachos heaped on top of French fries), I was hooked on the fourth meal—fries, thick-crusted pizza, spicy nachos—you name it, I’d eat it. Unfortunately, my favorite meal often has me scarfing the absolute worst things to put in my body at 2 a.m. Now, as a supposed grownup with a not-quite-as-fast metabolism, I wondered which foods are better choices when late-night hunger pangs strike.
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According to the Mayo Clinic, no particular foods help us sleep better. On the other hand, there are foods that can wreak havoc on our shuteye. I dug around and found out which foods to avoid and which to choose for your late night snack to evade that next-day food hangover. 

Heavy, High-Fat Meals
My beloved carne asada fries and thick-crust cheesy pizza fall into this category. These choices are bad, bad, bad if we’re looking to get a restful sleep post-feast. The cheese and oil are made of fat, which sits in our digestive tract the longest of any type of food. To push it through, our bodies require a bunch of energy—this makes it tricky to get cozy.

Fiery Food
Eating too much hot sauce or spicy chips can cause physical discomfort when it’s time to lie down—especially if you’re prone to heartburn, like me. “Spicy food also gives you an endorphin rush, making it that much harder to get to sleep,” says Lynn Smithson, a San Diego-based nutritionist. Since spiciness keeps our brains running on full power far longer than the time it takes to consume it, saving the spice-induced endorphin rush for daylight is probably a safe bet. 

Caffeine
The stimulant is found in a lot more than a cup of coffee. Candy, ice cream, and especially that dark chocolate bar stashed in the freezer can contain as much as a cup of coffee does. Caffeine increases the activity of our nervous systems, keeping our thoughts racing as we lie in bed. 

Cheap Chinese
Not to say all Chinese is a bad choice, but many of those local spots spike their fare with MSG, a food additive used for flavor enhancement. It can trigger a number of digestive discomforts since it takes the body longer to break it down and may cause other short-term reactions. MSG is most commonly found in heavy, deep-fried entrees, so avoid those at the very least. 

Other Artificial Ingredients
Whether it’s fast food (full of artificial flavors and coloring), or anything labeled “low sugar” or “low fat,” it’s probably laced with fake sweeteners. “These go largely unrecognized in the body,” says Lindsay Segal, a physician’s assistant in training. “Your body tries to clean it out by digesting it, and this means you’re absorbing some of the chlorinated molecules in the sweeteners.” 

Breakfast Cereal
Okay, before you totally flip, I’m not talking about avoiding all cereals. I’m a huge fan of breakfast foods and have spent many blissful nights chowing down on Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Well, blissfully ignorant no more—scarfing down a high-sugar, high-processed cereal like that is no good for anyone who has hopes of sleep in their her future. The sky-high sugar content spikes our blood sugar, making it hard to catch any ZZZs. 

Steak and Other Red Meat
I always love finding another reason to shun the low-carb lifestyle. Red meat falls into the prolonged digestion category, too. Our bodies take longer to break down fat and protein, and there are loads of both in a big, juicy steak. All that extra work requires extra energy, which perks us up. A good steak is great, but best enjoyed during dinnertime at the latest. 

Canned Soup
Even the “healthiest” soups from a can are rough on our shuteye patterns, thanks to the often mile-long ingredient lists and hefty helpings of sodium. These liquid preservative bombs are usually loaded with salt and additives, harming our ability to fall asleep easily and making it likely that we’ll wake up feeling dehydrated from all that sodium. 

Beans
Okay, these are normally a healthy choice because of their high fiber content, but this is what makes them a rough nighttime choice. These, as we all know, can have an awkward effect on digestion, leaving us trying to sleep amid heartburn and cramps, not to mention grumbles from your bed partner. 

Healthy Swap Outs
After compiling this list, it seemed that pretty much all my midnight snacks were covered in the “don’t” category. But feeling hungry can keep us wake, too, which is why eating a light snack is a smart choice before hitting the sack. “You’re going eight hours without eating, which is a really long time to go without giving your body any fuel,” says Jenny Geyser, a personal trainer in San Diego. While we should try to leave at least four hours between the last large meal and bedtime, something small and easily digestible can be a sensible choice before bedtime (woohoo!). 

  • Switch the large, high fat pizza for a ham and grilled cheese sandwich on whole-wheat bread. There’s still a hint of cheese, but not so much that will make digestion terribly uncomfortable. Plus, the whole-wheat toast digests easily and quickly. 
  • Switch the spicy chips for whole-wheat pretzels dipped in mild chipotle salsa. Subbing deep fried, fatty chips for more nutritious and quick-digesting crunchy pretzels satisfies the taste craving for crunchy and smoky. 
  • Switch caffeine-packed dark chocolate for a homemade sweet snack. Grab some chocolate graham crackers and spread them with some all-natural jam or a smidge of peanut butter. While not totally all natural or sugar-free, it satisfies the sweet tooth and gives us some fruit and protein. 
  • Switch cheap Chinese and other artificial foods for homemade leftovers or a quality frozen meal. In hopes of creating a better alternative, I’ve started freezing leftovers, so I have a more natural (and cheap) option waiting for me. There are also more good frozen meal choices out there lately—Amy’s Organics are some of my faves. 
  • Switch sugary cereal for a more wholesome one. There are a lot of healthy cereals out there that taste like cardboard, but others are truly great and satisfying—Kashi has a whole line of low sugar, wholesome, higher protein cereals that don’t taste like healthy fare. Top them with a little fruit and you have comfort, quick digestion, and even a sweet taste to finish it off. 
  • Switch red meat and beans for turkey or ham. If it’s protein you’re craving, the key is eating small portions and lean cuts. While protein does take longer to digest than carbs, I’m not going to deny myself if it’s what I want. I’ve found that if I keep it light and low fat, I don’t develop any kind of stomachache and wake up feeling great. 
  • Switch canned soup for homemade soup or organic canned soup. If you’re the cooking type, make a huge batch from scratch and freeze portions in microwave-ready containers. If not, there are good brands of organic, preservative-free soups in most stores, too. Just beware of sodium and unpronounceable ingredients—try different ones until you find your preference. 

Even though I was bummed when compiling the sleep-harming foods list, it really just takes a little shift in thinking to take my late-night snacks from undergrad to grownup. Here’s to catching some more ZZZs this week. Now, pass the salsa, please.

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