Is Nighttime Snacking Good or Bad For You?

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It has long been said that late-night snacking can have a negative effect on your overall health. But some studies suggest that a snack in the evening can be beneficial. Here are 10 studies on the subject.

Pro: Protein after an evening workout can improve protein synthesis

Eating a healthy, high-protein snack after an evening exercise can help the body even while you sleep.  Research has found that the body continues to digest and absorb protein even after you've gone to sleep, leading to overnight protein synthesis in the muscles and whole-body protein balance.  The researchers used casein protein for the study.

Con: Nighttime snacking reduces fat oxidation, increases LDL cholesterol in women

Even in young, healthy women, that midnight snack could be doing damage to your body.  In one study, women were given a snack at 11 p.m. for two weeks, after which the researchers studied the food's effects.  They found that nighttime snacking led to lower fat oxidation – the process by which the body breaks down fat into energy – and higher LDL cholesterol levels.

Pro: Cereal before bed could be good for weight management

Snacking after dinner could constitute a significant amount of calories a person consumes in a day, especially among the overweight and obese.  Researchers wanted to test if a structured nighttime snack could help regulate excess energy and lead to weight loss in these people.  The study found that eating cereal with low-fat milk after dinner could be beneficial to some people.

Con: Eating close to bedtime can negatively affect sleep

A 2011 study from the Universidade Federal de São Paulo (Brazil) found that eating during the nocturnal period is tied to poor sleep quality.  The research results indicated that eating fat had a negative relationship with sleep latency, include REM sleep.  The percentage of nocturnal fat intake correlated with sleep efficiency and stage 2 sleep.

Pro: Nighttime snack is better than a large meal

According to the National Institute on Aging, large meals close to bedtime may keep you awake, though a light snack in the evening can help you get a good night's sleep.  They also recommend drinking fewer beverages in the evening and avoiding alcohol.

Con: Night eating associated with emotional eating, boredom and anxiety

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, late-night snacking may be more about boredom, anxiety or emotion, and not necessarily hunger.  Eating in these scenarios can lead to weight gain.  The academy recommends eating a later dinner, saving dessert for later in the evening, asking yourself if you are really actually hungry, and going to bed earlier as a means to avoid late-night snacking.

Pro: Eating an energy bar may regulate blood sugar

Research from Casa Pacifica Medical Clinic in Camarillo, CA found that eating a snack bar containing uncooked cornstarch – such as Extend Bar – helped to regulate blood sugar throughout the night and in the morning among type 2 diabetes patients.  Eating the snack bar before bed maintained blood sugar throughout the night and even lowered it in the morning, without resulting in positive or negative glucose level spikes.

Con: Disrupting natural circadian cycles with eating dramatically affects weight gain

According to research from Vanderbilt University, disrupting the body's natural circadian rhythm can lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.  The study found that insulin activity is controlled by the body's biological clock, where disrupting this natural process could impact how the body breaks down fat and carbohydrates.

Pro: Late-night snacks improve nutritional status and lean body mass among cirrhosis patients

Among patients with alcoholic liver disease, eating at night could be beneficial in staving off malnutrition.  Protein energy malnutrition and deficiencies in individual nutrients are common complications of alcoholic liver disease.  Late-night snacks for these patients may improve nutritional status and lean body mass.

Con: Night eating syndrome

The condition involves waking from sleep and having a compulsory need for food.  Published in Eating and Weight Disorders, scientists studying the condition believe it may be a psychobiological response to stimuli, developing an irresistible and repeated desire for food.  Other theories include that eating replaces dreaming, to which the patient offers strong resistance.