It’s 10:30 p.m., and you’ve just settled in for some mindless TV time — a playoff game, a cheesy drama or your favorite reality show. What do you choose as your guilty-pleasure snack? That bowl of chocolate ice cream and bag of greasy chips are calling your name.
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But for late-night snacking, be mindful, not mindless. Snacking when you should be sleeping can disrupt your natural circadian rhythm and increase your chances for weight gain. Further, eating at irregular “non-meal” times confuses your organs and your metabolism.
And your body tends to crave foods that are high in sodium, sugar and starch. Researchers say this mechanism helped our ancient ancestors survive. But those ancestors didn’t have access to potato chips, ice cream and gummy bears.
Avoiding midnight snacks is your first line of defense in preventing weight gain and other ill effects. But if you’re up late and must munch, choose wisely.
1. Instead of potato chips, try popcorn
Popcorn packs the same crunch and convenience as chips, and you can indulge without piling on the calories. Popcorn boasts only 100 calories for about 3 to 4 cups (depending on the brand). But those 100 calories also give you antioxidants and tons of fiber, which can help in the battle against belly fat. Just eat your popcorn without added fat and sugar toppings. Purchase pre-popped corn with only salt and oil — or go bold and air-pop at home with a touch of cinnamon or turmeric to increase spice.
2. Instead of ice cream, try frozen peanut butter
Reaching for a few (dozen) spoonfuls of ice cream means you’re craving fat and sugar. There is an alternative that makes you less likely to be a spoon-fool. Try freezing spoonfuls of natural peanut butter ahead of time for a simple late-night snack. Keeping peanut butter frozen means it takes you longer to enjoy it — and makes it closer to ice cream. And spooning it up in a tablespoon or smaller in advance helps with portion control. Bonus: Peanut consumption is linked to reductions in disease and overall mortality.
3. Instead of milk chocolate, try dark chocolate
Chocolate is a big “go to” for my midnight snacking patients. But it also doubles as a “no no” because it contains tons of calories and fat. You can ease the chocolate monster within by switching from milk chocolate to 70 percent or greater dark chocolate. Although dark chocolate still has calories, fat and sugar, it also has more positive qualities — including possibly reducing your stress. If you’re having trouble sleeping, reducing stress is a healthy step. Just be sure to limit your portion to one ounce a day, about the size of one square in a six-square chocolate bar.
4. Instead of mixed berries, try dark pitted cherries
I’m never one to discourage berry consumption, but dark cherries beat mixed berries for late-night snacking. These sweet bites increase natural levels of the hormone melatonin in the body. Melatonin not only plays a major role in sleep but also may help reduce body weight and cholesterol. Cherries can satisfy your sweet tooth in a healthier manner than refined carbohydrate snacks, but you should still limit your portion to a handful.
None of these snacks are good options if you go overboard on portions. Try having a “midnight emergency box” in your pantry and fridge with pre-portioned goodies stocked in separate bags. You can even include a motivating message with each goodie bag, like “Stop eating and go to sleep!”
Stopping at one reasonable portion is the best thing you can do – right behind not having a midnight snack at all.
Contributor: Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD