Wednesday, June 27, 2012


My husband and I have a running argument. He says that he can’t sleep if he doesn’t have at least a semi-full stomach at bedtime. And for him, that’s around 11:00 pm. Recently, he’s started working until about 10:00 pm – what with his second job. So, he almost always wants to eat a meal after 10 pm and doesn't seem to mind eating a fair amount of food at that hour. I don’t like to eat late night meals. In fact, I’m prone to indigestion and insomnia when I’ve had a hefty meal anytime after 9 pm. But, as it stands, I have only two choices: eat late with my husband or eat alone in the early evening. And, even though I might some time regret it, right now, I’m eating a bedtime meal. So, I decided to read a bit about late night meals and organize my thoughts about it. Here’s what I found.

It’s common knowledge that the body uses a lot of energy to digest food at any hour. And when the body wants to enter a state of sleep, it will be stopped, at least to some degree, if there is undigested food in the stomach. So there won’t be restful sleep and not proper digestion, either. This is a distress to the body and  possibly causes nightmares.

There is also popular advice that late night meals and snacks are counterproductive to people who are trying to lose weight. The logic for this is the belief that the body converts late night calories into fat rather than using them right away as fuel. And that can be the cause of weight gain. Of course, there are others who say that if total daily calories are kept at an optimal level, eating something at night shouldn’t matter. For these people, it’s the total calories eaten and burned through one's daily activities that count more than the exact time that the food was consumed.

But the case against eating bedtime meals includes some other health effects. People with periodic indigestion, like myself, often have more symptoms if they lie down after eating. So those people certainly don’t want to eat much shortly before going to bed. Obviously, spicy or fatty foods are even more likely to be troublesome. Also those who are sensitive to caffeine should avoid coffee intake before bed. Alcohol is usually acts a sedative in small amounts. (My husband and I like to drink a cup of red wine with our last meal of the day.) But the consensus is that more than a little alcohol can cause awakening just a few hours later with problems to get back to sleep.

It comes down to choices and proportions
There’s speculation that, if a significant portion of the total daily calorie intake occurs late at night, sleep will be disturbed and often accompanied by bad dreams. An inability to return to sleep without getting up and doing other things, including eating or drinking something else, is another puzzling set of symptoms. Beyond that, it’s entirely possible that, for some people, eating at night is associated with weight gain. They may be careful about food choices during the day but lose all caution in the nighttime. For these people, having a last substantial meal several hours before bedtime helps them avoid a late night snack with a lot of unnecessary calories.

And it’s not unusual for people to look for some comfort food in the evenings, especially if they stay up late watching television or working at the computer. What certainly must to be avoided are late night meals and snacks that are difficult to digest. Those are contrary to a good night’s sleep. You know what foods I’m talking about  - what a lot of people reach for, or phone in for around midnight – chips, wings, pizza, and burgers. High sugar foods like ice cream, pie, and cake are also suspect before heading off to bed.

Foods that shouldn’t harm your sleep
So, the best advice is to have a substantial meal several hours before bedtime and that way, hopefully, you can go to bed just with nothing more than a tea or a glass of water. Of course, that doesn't work out for everybody. So, if you really feel hungry before bed, watch out for heavy, spicy or other high caloric foods. Easily digested,  low-sugar, low-calorie foods (less than a total of 350 calories) ought to be all right. 

Here are a few ideas for bedtime snacks that you won’t regret eating.

- Cereal and milk sweetened with honey. A small bowl of cereal can fill up the stomach and honey contains natural compounds that have a calming effect.

- Cottage cheese or yogurt. These are dairy products that are high in protein and calcium and not so sugary as ice cream and hot chocolate.

- Fruit. Almost all fruits are low-fat and high-fiber foods with minerals and enzymes that aid relaxation.

- A simple cup of soup or small sandwich or quesadilla (made with hummus, a thin slice of cheese and/or meat - without chips) fills up the stomach without a big load of extra calories.

So, whenever you want a late night meal or bedtime snack, think first. Ask yourself: Do I really need more food? And what should I be eating at this hour? Your answer (to yourself) should be based on whether you’ve already had your optimal caloric intake that day. It also should be based on the effect that certain foods could have on your body. So pay attention to what you eat before bedtime. That way you’ll get a good night’s sleep, and not have to worry so much about weight gain.

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1 comment:

retired school nurse said...

Our school was in academic emergency. One of the things we tried when I was still working was to try to get parents to feed kids a small protein snack before bedtime. (One doctor told me if you feed them starch their brain turns to mush the next morning.) Seemed to work. The children did better. We also gave them breakfast, lunch and snacks during breaks on testing days. We controlled the diet (with parental permission, of course). Their test scores improved a lot. I really don't know what percentage was because of diet. There were other reasons I'm sure. But I bet it helped.