Aha Fitness

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Nighttime Noshing: Is it okay to eat a bedtime snack?

on November 16, 2012

When I was a kid, I loved the comfort of a bedtime snack.  Sometimes my mom would give me graham crackers and milk.  Other nights, I’d have a banana or just a couple pieces of chocolate.  It was part of the ritual that went along with a bath, a book, and my fuzzy pajamas.

But when I got older, I heard about the rule.  You know the one:  Don’t eat before bed.  Why?  Well, as a kid I heard it could make you have bad dreams.   As a teenager, I was scared by the nightmare that eating right before bed would make me fat!

And so I commenced a snacking curfew.  I was dieting a lot back then.  It was miserable trying to fall asleep with an emptiness in my stomach.  The worst was when I would wake-up in the middle of the night with low blood sugar.  In my sleepy-state, my inhibitions suppressed, I would find myself in the kitchen eating (binging) on cereal or leftovers or whatever.

I know it sounds like skipping a bedtime snack clearly didn’t work for me; however, like so many times when I have tried to follow a “diet rule” my aspirations to adherence overshadowed my recognition I should abandon it.  I continued to try not eating before bed for many years.

But was it true?  If I gave in and went back to having a pm snack would it make me gain weight?  After all, Oprah’s trainer, Bob Greene, says not to eat at least 3 hours before bed.  And so does the wise Dr. Oz.  How did this diet rule become part of the creed?  Well, it begins with hormones….

Our hormones act differently when we are asleep.  For example, during sleep we secrete Growth Hormone which is responsible for muscle repair and fat break down.  Snack Shunners say that when we eat before bed, our body has to digest that food while we are sleeping which decreases our bodies’ ability to produce GH, thus impairing its ability to carry out metabolic functions.

They also say eating before bed can cause the presence of another hormone, insulin, to cause weight gain.  When we eat, our pancreas releases insulin to bring our blood sugar back to normal and facilitate moving the food (energy) into our muscle, liver, and fat cells for storage.  Some say that our pancreas doesn’t produce the proper amount of insulin as effectively and stores more energy in our fat cells when we are sleeping.

Hmm.  I must say these anti-snacking hormone theories do sound pretty scientifically sophisticated; however, what do the skeptics say.

Mark Burkheim of LeanGains doesn’t think this hormone dance is worth losing sleep over.  I must give him credit for his obvious yet smart observation that every mammal eats and then goes right to sleep.  Think of lions, tigers, bears, and even your own dog or cat.  Could it really be unnatural to eat and then go to sleep if all mammals do it?  Should we as humans try to go against this innate proclivity?

There are even those that say eating before sleep can HELP you lose weight.  Bodybuilders are known to have a protein snack before bed so the amino acids can repair and protect their muscle tissue.  In addition, some say a bedtime snack can aid in falling and staying asleep.  Tryptophan is a supplement you can take but it is also in foods and it can help you fall asleep.  Also, when we are satiated, a hormone leptin goes up and our hunger-hormone, ghrelin, goes down.  Circulating leptin can keep us asleep through the night and nobody will argue that a good night’s sleep is the most important for optimal health and weight management.

So after “weighing” the science of the Snack Shunners versus the Snack Slumberers what did I decide to do?  Well, I needed to do a little more experimenting before I reached my own aha!  First, I gave myself permission to eat any snack I wanted before bed.  This didn’t turn out so well at first as my snack often ended up being a few too many nuts or dark chocolate squares.  After going to bed with the jitters and a little heart burn, I kept experimenting until I found that a pre-portioned, light protein/carb snack works best for me.  Some other interesting ahas:

Celery doesn’t work.  While veggies are ok to snack on at night, celery has a diuretic effect thus it makes me have to pee during the night.

Speaking of having to pee, I don’t drink any water with my bedtime snack for the same obvious reason.

While I used to do chocolate as a kid, the caffeine is too much for me now.  Hot cocoa sounds cozy, but I’m better off having it in the afternoon.

Bedtime snacks I enjoy—hard boiled eggs, turkey rolled in lettuce and tomato with a squirt of mustard, banana with a few almonds.

Now it’s your turn to share your ahas: Are you a Snack Shunner or a Snack Slumberer?  If you do snack, what do and don’t you have?  Got any snack ideas?

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