A good night’s sleep generates all sorts of health benefits: It reinforces your immune response, supports healthy heart function, and boosts your mood, overall health, plus productivity. And now new research is shedding light on a connection between sleep loss and unhealthy snacking habits that can lead to dietary diseases like obesity and diabetes.
The analysis published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at the between-meal eating behaviors of nearly 20,000 adults, ages of 20 to 60, and then cross-referenced that data against their sleeping habits, essentially dividing the group into two subgroups—one that met the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society’s recommendation of at least seven hours of sleep per night, and another that did not. In particular, the team was interested in after-dinner snacking, according to one of the paper’s authors, Christopher A. Taylor, PhD, RDN, a researcher and professor of medical dietetics at Ohio State University. “A lot of what’s been done on nighttime eating is, ‘Did you eat after eight?’ which is different if you’re eating dinner at 8:30 p.m. than if you had dinner at 6 p.m. and now you’re snacking through the rest of the evening,” he explains.
Instead, they wanted to survey all scenarios to get a more accurate picture of how sleep habits affect snacking habits. “[We wanted to know] what people are snacking on, the amount they’re eating, and how [these factors] differ for people who usually meet sleep recommendations [versus] those who don’t,” he says.
Dr. Taylor and his team found that those who did not meet the sleep recommendations consumed more calories via snacks at night, and ate more sugar, too. “Sweets, alcoholic beverages, and non-alcoholic beverages accounted for [approximately] two-thirds of caloric intake [in the evening],” he says, adding that all of this—combined with the fact that people tend to be more sedentary in the evenings—helps to explain, at least in part, the connection between not meeting sleep recommendations and developing obesity and chronic disease.
It’s a vicious (albeit delicious) cycle that can have additional negative consequences for your health since such snacks can also disrupt sleeping patterns, Dr. Taylor points out, leading to sleep loss that will lead to more of the type of snacking connected to diet-based diseases. But he hopes people use these findings to reconsider their evening schedule. If you eat dinner at 6 p.m. and go to bed at midnight, he points out, that is a long period of time to go without eating, so you’re more likely to engage in snacking in the (mostly sedentary) evening on such a schedule. And if you’re sleep deprived, you’re unlikely to reach for healthy snacks.
On the other hand, eating dinner at 8 p.m. and going to bed at midnight should mean you’re less likely to be as hungry, and it affords you less time for unhealthy snacking, too. (Same goes if you stick to your 6 p.m. supper time, but hit the hay at 10 p.m. instead.) In fact, he says, by eating dinner about four hours before your bedtime, you really shouldn’t need to snack again because that should give you a normal 10-12 hours between meals, depending on when you wake up.
Of course, this isn’t always possible because, well, life. Generally, registered dietician Melissa Rifkin, CDN recommends snacking if you’re going to go more than four hours between meals, which typically amounts to two snacks per day; however, she also points out that some people may require an additional bite to eat. “A third snack in the evening may be appropriate as well depending on energy needs and timing of dinner and going to bed,” she says.
Whenever you can, she recommends eating this third snack at least two hours before bed in order to avoid weight gain and sleep disruption, and of course she notes that what you choose to eat is important. “Snacks should be balanced, which means they include a variety of nutrients,” she says. “A protein-rich snack would be best: greek yogurt, cottage cheese, egg, protein shake, nuts or nut butter, jerky, etc are good options. A small amount of carb can accompany the protein, but it should be minimal and good quality—so nothing with added sugar in it.”
Portion size, she adds, will vary person to person depending on their energy needs, health status, and weight goals, but one serving, per the package, is a good place for most people to start.
It’s also important to stay hydrated, as dehydration can be confused for hunger, Rifkin notes. So too can boredom or stress. “If someone is physically hungry, they should absolutely eat something,” she says. “If someone is wanting to eat out of boredom, it is in their best interest to find another activity to fill time.”
And she offers one (SMH-obvious) final suggestion if you’re a late-night snacker: Go to bed earlier. “For most people, going to bed at midnight likely won’t lead to adequate sleep,” she points. If you’re eating dinner at 6 p.m. and then, say, putting kids to bed or catching up on work, it can be tempting to revenge bedtime procrastinate until too-late hours, which can then lead to sleep deprivation and all of its ill effects described above.
In short, you might want to reevaluate your evening schedule to determine how best to facilitate both a healthy amount of sleep and healthy snacking behavior. “Looking at how we plan our days, and how we plan the foods that we eat, and how those those things can influence our sleep—and also how not getting sleep can influence [these behaviors]—helps us to start being more strategic about how all of these factors are coming together to impact our health,” Dr. Taylor says. It’s something to sleep on, to be sure.
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