Two experts explain how (and why) you need to put down the after-hours candy bars.

By Lauren Wellbank
August 04, 2020
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Late-night cravings can be hard to fight. Your body is hardwired to reach for junk food during those evening snack sessions, but you don't have to give into temptation just because your body is telling you that it's time for something unhealthy. We spoke with two nutritionists to find out what better-for-you alternatives you can reach for instead of that unhealthy midnight snack.

The Ingalls

First, understand why nighttime becomes snack time.

If you've ever heard the old adage that cravings are a way for your body to let you know what nutrient it is missing, you're not alone. Unfortunately for chocolate lovers, that theory appears to be unfounded. "People always tell me that if they have a salt or sugar craving it's because their body needs that nutrient," explains Ashley Shaw, a registered dietician and prenatal nutrition and infant feed specialist at Preg APPETIT. "Unless you have a blood sugar or blood pressure disorder, this is highly unlikely." Instead, what you crave is more of an insight into your daily diet. "When it comes to salt and sugar, we have tolerances that we build up over time based on our dietary habits (i.e. the more we eat, the more we crave)," she says. The only way to crave less unhealthy food is to eat less of it in your daily diet.

Everyone's schedule is different, so how late you can safely snack without experiencing side effects like interrupted sleep patterns from too much caffeine or sugar, weight gain from unburned calories, and even heartburn and indigestion that can keep you awake, will be different for everyone. To avoid those complications, Shaw suggests eating your final meal or snack at least two hours before bedtime. So, what should you be reaching for instead of those unhealthy snacks? Dr. Brooke Scheller, DCN, CNS, and director of nutrition at Freshly suggests the following alternatives to your traditional snacks.

If you're craving chocolate…

Reach for cacao powder instead. Chocolate is normally loaded with sugar—whether it's in a candy bar, ice cream, or other treat—but craving it may be a sign that you're deficient in magnesium, an important mineral that's found in chocolate. "Magnesium is a calming mineral that is actually used in some bedtime-type supplements to help relax the nervous system and increase relaxation," explains Scheller. She suggests adding a little cacao powder to unsweetened almond milk. You can add some maple syrup and a sprinkle of cinnamon in order to create a "healthy" cup of hot cocoa.

If you're craving something salty…

Opt for vegetables and hummus. Many Americans have too much sodium in their diets already, so Scheller advises caution when it comes to picking a salty treat. "Instead, look for natural ways to consume small amounts of sodium to feed your craving—veggies like carrots and celery contain naturally occurring sodium that can help fill this void," she says. "Pair them with a source of protein, like hummus or peanut butter to increase satiety." Just be mindful to avoid any dips that may also contain high amounts of sugar.

If you're craving a sweet snack…

Pick up some fruit. Fresh fruit can be a great option for a sweet craving. However, too much fruit can cause an increase in your blood sugar (which could leave you craving even more of the sweet stuff). Pair your fruit snacks with a protein or healthy fat, Scheller suggests a handful of nuts or scoop of almond butter to balance it out.

If you're craving ice cream…

Make "Nice" cream. Instead of chowing down on traditional ice cream, you can try blending up a small amount of frozen banana, a scoop of plain protein powder, and a tablespoon of cacao powder. "This banana 'ice cream' not only will satisfy your sweet tooth, but also provide protein to help balance blood sugar," she says. "I also like to add a small scoop of peanut butter and a few cacao nibs for a 'chocolate cookie dough'-type spin." 

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