A Guide to Aid Your Late Night Snack Ritual

There is all kinds of advice urging people to avoid the temptation to eat late night snacks, and some of this advice is good. For the most part, however, the general taboo status of late night snacking is out of date. At face value, the logic of limiting caloric intake to the hours when you’re most active appears valid. That’s because it’s based on thinking that the earlier you consume calories, the longer you have to burn them off before reloading. It makes basic sense, especially if you’ve got some radical weight-loss goals in your sights. There is also research that suggests people who eat during their more sedentary hours of the day, like after 8:00 pm, burn fewer calories digesting the meal throughout the night. And, It’s also true that a poorly chosen bedtime snack can spike your insulin, causing you to store more of those calories as fat. But those facts apply mainly to a broad and general population sample. People who follow regular fitness routines and who pay at least some attention to balancing their macronutrients require a different set of dietary guidelines. Regular exercise trains your body to use insulin more efficiently, according to the Journal of Applied Physiology.1 And if you’re exercising to build muscle, then a balanced and well-timed healthy snack before bed will help your body maintain an anabolic state throughout the night. If you’re in the first category, evening snacks are fine as long as you stick to healthy snacks that fit your macros. If you’re in the second category, a healthy late night snack may give your body’s nighttime recovery process an added boost. But whichever category you’re in, here are some details to help you figure out whether (and what) you should eat past 8:00 pm.

Exercise Routines and Insulin

We all understand that exercise burns calories, and that those burned-off calories equate to fat loss over time. But in addition to calorie-burning, another major weight-loss benefit of exercise is that it improves insulin sensitivity, making your body less prone to fat storage. As an added bonus, improved insulin sensitivity may carry over into the hours when you’re most sedentary; a study published by Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism in 20142 found that

“Nighttime feeding for 4 weeks did not impact insulin sensitivity (assessed via homeostatic model assessment of insulin resistance) when combined with exercise training in obese women.”

Protein Synthesis

Protein synthesis is the process your body undertakes to rebuild tissues that are broken down during exercise. It’s a critical part of health and fitness, even if you’re not looking to stack on more muscle. For anyone, even endurance athletes, who work out regularly and eat every three or four hours to optimize protein synthesis, the logic of stopping that process because of an arbitrary variable (like the time of the day) seems silly. More than that, the idea that you can consume all your protein during a narrow window of time is contradicted by scientific studies. One study, published by The Journal of Physiology3 in 2013, concluded

“The distribution of protein intake is an important variable to promote attainment and maintenance of peak muscle-mass.”

Regular Exercise and Protein Synthesis

So far we have shown that if you’re exercising regularly you don’t need to worry about insulin resistance as much as those who don’t exercise. But, if you’re exercising regularly, you do need to be mindful of protein synthesis and the proper nutrient-timing that supports it. A study published by the nutrition and sports sciences researchers at Florida State University4 found that

“When the food choice is small, nutrient-dense, low energy foods and/or single macronutrients rather than large mixed-meals… a bedtime supply of nutrients can promote positive physiological changes in healthy populations. In addition, when nighttime feeding is combined with exercise training, any adverse effects appear to be eliminated … “

Late Night Snacks Support Both Muscle Building and Weight Loss Goals

If you’re working toward weight loss goals, then late-night snacking can actually be the right way to go. Another study conducted by Florida State University5 found that healthy, physically active college-aged men who eat a snack of protein and/or carbs a few minutes before bed showed higher resting energy expenditure (REE) the next morning compared to a control group. If your fitness goals involve heavy resistance training because you’re trying to build lean muscle, then late night snacks will help with that too. The Journal of Nutrition6 reports that late night snacks containing 27.5 grams of protein, 15 grams of carbohydrates, and .01 grams of fat generate superior increases in muscle mass and strength over the course of a 12-week resistance training program, when compared to a control group.

It All Boils Down to What You Eat Before Bed

Healthy late night snacks should be something that’s mostly protein based. But not all protein is created equal. Basic whey protein, for example, is the most common protein supplement on the market and all kinds of athletes use it. But whey is a fast digesting protein. It’s a great supplement first thing in the morning or immediately after a workout. For nighttime snacking you want something that digests more slowly to keep your body’s protein synthesis going steady until morning. Casein is a better protein for nighttime. It’s also a whey product but it digests much more slowly.

Choosing the Best Late Night Snack Options

Let’s sum up a few guidelines for choosing midnight snack ideas. Aim for evening snacks that are less than 200 calories and made up mostly of protein. The average whey protein shake contains about 20–25 grams of protein per scoop, but if you can go higher, say 30–40 grams, that’s better. If possible, choose foods containing casein protein. Keep carbs to a minimum; if you find yourself craving an after-dinner dessert, remember sugar might spike your insulin at precisely the wrong time. Elevated insulin levels dampen growth-hormone release, which is the main hormonal ingredient to nighttime recovery, and peaks while you sleep. If your sweet tooth is really sounding off, choose something more healthy than sugary desserts, such as high-antioxidant raspberries or blueberries.
Here are some ideas for healthy late night snacks that you can add to your shopping list. Try to imagine ways to mix and match these healthy snack ideas to give yourself the ideal nutrient balance for your fitness goals.

  1. Cottage Cheese — A cup of low-fat cottage cheese contains around 200 calories and 30 grams of casein protein.
  2. Almonds — A quarter-cup of almonds contains just over 200 calories and about 8 grams of protein. Almonds are also high in calcium, iron, and healthy fats.
  3. Hard boiled eggs — Large hard-boiled eggs are about 75 calories with six grams of protein each.
  4. Greek yogurt — Plain, nonfat Greek yogurt is 100 calories and 24 grams of protein per cup.
  5. Blueberries — One cup of blueberries is 85 calories, but only about one gram of protein. That’s okay, because they’re full of Vitamin C and antioxidants. To keep insulin levels low while satisfying your sweet tooth, you can add a quarter or half a cup of blueberries to your cottage cheese or Greek yogurt.
  6. Progenex Cocoon — Simply the best casein protein powder on the market. Two level scoops gives you 21 grams of protein at 130 calories. Remember if mixing Cocoon with something like skim milk, or almond/coconut milk, to factor those calories in as well.
  7. Progenex More MuscleMore Muscle is a specially-formulated whey protein that offers a full 20 percent more BCAAs and leucine than regular whey protein isolate. One serving contains 31 grams of protein at 170 calories.

Based on scientific evidence, we recommend that people who are looking to build muscle, lose weight, improve endurance, or optimize overall athletic performance should consume healthy protein-based snacks just before bed. If you haven’t worked a healthy bedtime snack into your diet yet, give it a try and see if you start noticing better results than what you got from going to bed hungry.

 

Sources:

  1. John O. Holloszy Journal of Applied Physiology Jul 2005, 99 (1) 338-343; DOI:10.1152/japplphysiol.00123.2005
  2. Ormsbee, M. J., Kinsey, A. W., Eddy, W. R., Madzima, T. A., Arciero, P. J., Figueroa, A., & Panton, L. B. (2014). The influence of nighttime feeding of carbohydrate or protein combined with exercise training on appetite and cardiometabolic risk in young obese women. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 40(1), 37-45.
  3. Areta, José L et al. “Timing and Distribution of Protein Ingestion during Prolonged Recovery from Resistance Exercise Alters Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis.” The Journal of Physiology 591.Pt 9 (2013): 2319–2331. PMC. Web. 3 May 2016.
  4. Kinsey, Amber W.; Ormsbee, Michael J. 2015. “The Health Impact of Nighttime Eating: Old and New Perspectives.” Nutrients 7, no. 4: 2648-2662.
  5. Madzima, T. A., Panton, L. B., Fretti, S. K., Kinsey, A. W., & Ormsbee, M. J. (2014). Night-time consumption of protein or carbohydrate results in increased morning resting energy expenditure in active college-aged men. British Journal of Nutrition, 111(01), 71-77.
  6. Snijders, T., Smeets, J. S., van Vliet, S., van Kranenburg, J., Maase, K., Kies, A. K., … & van Loon, L. J. (2015). Protein Ingestion before Sleep Increases Muscle Mass and Strength Gains during Prolonged Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Healthy Young Men. The Journal of Nutrition, jn208371.

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