By: Shannon Connor Winward
What You Eat is More Important Than When You Eat It
(PCM) The stars are out, the hour is late, and most of the world, it seems, is tucked in for the night. Yet here you are, getting ready to chow down. Whether you’re crashing an all-night-diner with friends or cruising to fridge town as a party of one, there’s something about eating “after hours” that feels a little wicked, a little wild – but is late-night snacking really bad for you?
As it turns out, being “bad” may taste oh, so good, but there’s no real difference whether you eat at five o’clock or three AM – the calories in that slice of pizza are exactly the same. The only thing that really matters to your diet (and your health) are what foods you eat and how many total calories you consume.
Usually we talk about daily eating as a trinity – three square meals at, say, eight, noon, and five – but this doesn’t always reflect our modern reality. Some of us skip meals, others graze throughout the day or load up like a camel at one big sit-down. Many people live and work on unconventional schedules. Is moonlight dining your new normal? It may seem naughty (especially if you remember Gremlins), but if your midnight mauling of that chicken leg is making up for a meal you missed earlier, then it’s probably something your body needs.
On the other hand, if you’re throwing down with a bowl of ice cream or frozen burritos for reasons other than hunger, that can be a problem. Many people turn to food as stress-relief after a rough day, particularly with high-fat comfort foods. A single session of self-pity snacking can double your daily calorie intake – and eventually, your waistline. Late-night munchies can also be triggered by a bout of drinking (another popular form of stress-relief!); in addition to washing away inhibitions, alcohol increases our cravings, makes us feel less full, and hinders our self-control – a dangerous dietary combination if you’re already at or over your calorie quota.
What’s more, consuming heavy meals and certain foods before bed (spicy marina or clams casino anyone?) can lead to a night of digestive discomfort or otherwise mess with your sleep cycle, leading to a vicious cycle of fatigue, with you reaching for more food, over-the-counter energy-boosters and excess caffeine to get through the following day.
Coffee is our favorite crutch for good reason – it’s a powerful stimulant, it tastes great, and goes well with just about everything. A little bit of can be good for you (caffeine boosts brain function and physical performance, helps burn fat, and lowers your risk for certain diseases), but too much can cause nausea, nervousness, dehydration, increased heart rate, muscle tremors – not to mention insomnia when you’re finally ready to turn in.
For natural sources of energy, a balanced diet of whole foods is best – at midnight or any time of day. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, tuna and other fish, flaxseed, walnuts), B vitamins (meat, dairy, eggs, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes) and folates (green leafy veggies, fruit and grains) are especially helpful for energy production and mental alertness.
Even if you’re not trying to fuel your way through an all-nighter, eating before bedtime may actually be good for you; a snack or small meal can help you relax, sleep better, and stabilize your metabolism.
Nutritionists say that foods containing the amino acid tryptophan, in particular, are ideal for winding down – while it won’t put you to sleep directly, tryptophan aides with digestion and increases serotonin, a happy-time chemical in your brain. We all know about the tryptophan in the Thanksgiving turkey, but nuts and seeds, soy, and dairy are also great sources (grandma’s glass of warm milk is cliché for a reason!). And good news for carb-lovers; carbohydrates help your body process tryptophan. For really great late eating, go for a combination of whole grains with tryptophan-foods, such as a light turkey sandwich, nut butter spread on whole grain toast, a bowl of cereal with low-fat milk (not the rainbow-colored sugar orgy, we’re talking the good stuff here), soy yogurt with granola or a bit of cheese on crackers.
The occasional late-night binge can be great fun – there’s nothing quite like a post-party platter of onion rings and mozzarella sticks at one in the morning, or raiding the cabinets for cookies and milk at the crack of dawn. It’s important to keep those moments special, though, rather than making them a habit. If you find yourself looking for nighttime nosh on a regular basis, train yourself to think in terms of late-night mini-meals, with reasonable portions of real food, rather than late-night snacking. Your body is an all-night temple. It deserves better than freezer foraging and vending machines desperation.
Give yourself good eats – no matter the hour.