I typically get a second wind in the evening, and when my energy picks up, so does my appetite. As a dietitian, I’m a firm believer in eating when you are hungry. Among my clients, I’ve seen that trying to go to bed with a growling tummy can interfere with falling asleep and getting a quality night of shut-eye.
The trick to a healthy late-night snack is choosing one that's filling enough to satisfy, but light enough to prevent a calorie surplus, which can lead to unwanted weight gain. This mini meal should also be rich in nutrients, to supply the building blocks your body uses for maintenance, healing, and repair work—jobs that take place while you sleep. Some healthy late-night snacks can even help you get better sleep. Here are my top seven picks.
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Tart cherry juice mixed with chia seeds
Tart cherry juice, a natural source of melatonin, has been shown in several studies to improve sleep. In one small study, women 50 years and older with insomnia drank eight ounces of either tart cherry juice or a placebo in the morning and one to two hours before bed. After a few weeks, those drinking the real thing slept nearly an hour and a half more per night and improved sleep efficiency (the percentage of time spent asleep while in bed). The addition of a few tablespoons of chia seeds provides not only fiber and plant protein but tryptophan, a precursor to melatonin. Bonus: both tart cherry juice and chia seeds are top anti-inflammatory foods.
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Mashed banana topped with pumpkin seeds
A comfort food for many, bananas have been shown to boost blood melatonin levels. They’re also packed with potassium, which supports healthy blood pressure, heart function, and muscle contractions. Potassium helps prevent muscle cramps too. Mash and garnish this fruit with an ounce of pumpkin seeds, which supply plant protein, fiber, heart-healthy fat, zinc for immunity and healing, and potassium. The latter mineral helps induce a state of calm and relaxation that prepares your body for sleep and plays a role in melatonin regulation.
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Kiwi and pistachios
Eating kiwi on a daily basis is tied to substantial improvements to both sleep quality and quantity, research shows. In one study, men and women who struggled with sleep disturbances ate two kiwis one hour before bed for four weeks. Sleep diaries and wristwatches that measured sleep revealed that the kiwi eaters fell asleep over 35% faster, slept more soundly, and experienced a 13.4% increase in total sleep time. The addition of an ounce of pistachios adds bonus antioxidants, plant protein, healthful fat, and minerals. And this nut is another top source of sleep-promoting melatonin, packing more than any other nut.
Leftover sweet potato
The antioxidant-rich carbs in sweet potato boost serotonin, a brain chemical that triggers relaxation—making this root veggie an ideal healthy late-night snack. Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of immune-supporting vitamins A and C. One cup with the skin, about the size of a tennis ball, also provides 950 milligrams of potassium—more than twice the amount in a medium banana. Enjoy as is or drizzle with a mixture made from two teaspoons of warm water, one teaspoon of pure maple syrup, and a pinch of ground cinnamon.
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Avocado egg salad
Mash half of an avocado and toss with a pasture-raised, hard-boiled egg or two and a handful of chopped veggies, like minced kale or shredded zucchini. In addition to high-quality, easy-to-digest protein, eggs supply tryptophan. Plus avocado is another top source of potassium. Both provide bonus antioxidants and key nutrients, like vitamin D and choline in egg yolk, and vitamins E, K, and magnesium in avocado.
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Hummus with raw veggies
Reach for a quarter cup of either traditional chickpea hummus or a version made from black beans, lentils, or white beans. Scoop it up with a cup of sliced bell pepper, cucumber, grape tomatoes, or your other favorite in-season veggies. One study, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, found that participants with a higher intake of fiber and lower consumption of sugar and saturated fat spent more time in restorative, slow-wave sleep. A pulse (the umbrella term for beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas) plus veggie combo perfectly fits the bill for a healthy late-night snack.
Salmon and veggie salad
A handful of studies have shown that fish, especially types high in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, like salmon, promote restful sleep. Research shows that a deficiency of vitamin D, which is common in adults, can significantly increase the risk of unhealthy sleep and sleep disorders. DHA, one type of omega-3 fatty acid in salmon, is also known to stimulate melatonin production. To take advantage of the healthful effects, mix an ounce or two of canned wild salmon with a small handful of baby spinach and a tablespoon of olive tapenade. Spoon it into an outer romaine leaf or eat it as is.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees.
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