By Olivia Tarantino&Perri O. Blumberg
Losing out on Zzzs may set you up for unwelcome weight gain and belly fat. Here’s how to eat your way to a better night’s rest.
Besides being unbearably cranky the next day, skimping on sleep also makes us more likely to be overweight. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found when people miss out on shut-eye, it makes them eye more calorie-dense meals the next day. While many Americans suffer from stress-induced or nutrient-deficiency-induced insomnia, another reason you're counting sheep every night might be because of what you ate before you hit the sheets.
That's right. It's not just the blue light from your devices' screens that can sabotage your sleep cycle. As it turns out, what you choose to snack on before bedtime can play a big role in how well you hit the hay. If you can't sleep and can't figure out why, look no farther than some of the following sneaky foods that can ruin a restorative night's rest.
And while some foods are ruining your chance at some shut-eye, there are other nocturnal noshes that will help you get more of it. Forget what you've heard about the "don't eat past 8" rule, eating before bed is not necessarily a diet no-no. Contrarily, going to bed hungry may have worse consequences when it comes to a restful night's sleep. Eating one of the best foods before bed may help you ease into dream-land. And when you're getting the right amount of rest, you'll be able to make the right nutritional decisions the next day, like trying one of these 17 Breakfast Ideas Diet Experts Love!
First… The Best
Going to bed hungry may actually hurt your slim-down efforts. On one hand you save yourself some calories, but on the other, a rumbling stomach could prevent you from falling asleep or wake you up mid-slumber. A restless or shortened sleep can confuse your metabolism enough to promote weight gain. Not only that, but starving yourself of energy causes your brain to get hangry, and it signals your body to delve into its lean muscle stores for fuel. Go with a light snack around 200 calories of any of the following foods. It's substantial enough to keep hunger pangs at bay through the night, but not so heavy that it will disrupt your sleep.
Get under the down comforter with this sleep-inducing food from Down Under. Participants who consumed two kiwifruits 1 hour before bedtime nightly for 4 weeks fell asleep 35 percent faster than those who didn't eat the New Zealand fruit. Besides being rich in antioxidants, carotenoids, and vitamins C and E, it also contains a familiar hormone, serotonin. This sleep hormone is related to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and its low levels may cause insomnia. Similarly, kiwi is rich in folate, and insomnia is one of the health issues that is a symptom of folate deficiency. Need yet another reason to nosh on some delicious kiwi? It just so happens to be one of these 25 Best Foods for Instant Detox!
Sleep is a huge part of making any diet and exercise plan work, as it allows your body to process and recover from all the sweat and breakdown of muscle. And cherries are the perfect fruit for the job. A study published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that people who drank just one ounce of tart cherry juice a day reported that they slept longer and more soundly than those who didn't. So what's going on here? Cherries act as a natural sleep aid thanks to their melatonin content, a naturally produced hormone that signals to our bodies that it's time for bed. So enjoy a cup of cherries for dessert—they'll help you maintain your toned physique by replacing less virtuous desserts and moving along your snooze process.
4. Cereal and Skim Milk
Although it's traditionally considered a breakfast option, a low-sugar cereal paired with skim milk is a perfect bedtime snack. Milk contains the amino acid tryptophan, which serves as a precursor for the hormone serotonin, a sleep-inducing agent. (Just make sure your milk is skim. Higher fat whole milk will take your body longer to digest, keeping your body working late rather than snoozing.)
And according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating a high-glycemic carb like jasmine rice (or rice cereal) 4 hours before bed can cut the amount of time it takes to fall asleep in half compared to a low-GI food. This is because high-glycemic carbs, which spike insulin and blood sugar more quickly than low-GI foods, can help increase the ratio of tryptophan circulating in your blood by siphoning off other amino acids to your muscles. This lets the tryptophan outcompete those other amino acids for entrance into your brain, allowing more of the sedative to signal it's time to put your head to the pillow.
"Sleep aid" is #17 on the list of 21 Amazing Things That Happen To Your Body When You Eat Bananas. Because they're an excellent source of both potassium and magnesium, bananas can put your body into a sleepy state by helping with muscle relaxation. In a study in the Journal of Research and Medical Sciences, magnesium had a positive effect on the quality of sleep in older adults with insomnia by extending the time they spent sleeping in bed (rather than just lying there) and making it easier to wake up. Bananas also contain tryptophan, the precursor to calming and sleep-regulating hormones serotonin and melatonin.
Another great muscle-relaxing magnesium source? Nuts! Cashews and peanuts are good, but almonds are great. That's because almonds (which just so happen to be one of these 16 Must-Have Staples for a Flat-Belly Kitchen) are also high in calcium. This tag team works together to calm the body and relax muscles. Calcium plays its role by helping the brain convert the amino acid tryptophan into sleep-inducing melatonin. This also explains why dairy products which contain both tryptophan and calcium, are one of the top sleep-inducing foods.
Yet another reason to love this versatile food. With its long list of sleep-inducing nutrients, spinach is an insomniac's best friend. Not only is it a source of tryptophan, the green is an excellent source of folate, magnesium, and vitamins B6 and C, which are all key co-factors in synthesizing serotonin, and subsequently, melatonin. Spinach also contains glutamine, an amino acid which stimulates the body to get rid of the cellular toxins that lead to sleeplessness. When it comes to cooking spinach, avoid the flame. Heat breaks down glutamine as well as vitamins C and B, so it’s best to eat spinach raw—combine with a banana and almond milk for the perfect before-bed snack. For more tips on preparing foods for the most health benefits, don’t miss our report, How to Extract the Most Nutrient From Your Food.
Don't count sheep, eat lamb! (Or better yet, a bit of turkey.) Tryptophan, an amino acid found in most meats, has demonstrated powerful sleep-inducing effects. A recent study among insomniacs found that just 1/4 gram—about what you'll find in a skinless chicken drumstick or three ounces of lean turkey meat—was enough to significantly increase hours of deep sleep. And that can translate into an easy slim-down. Pair your source of tryptophan with a carbohydrate-rich food like brown rice (also high in sleep-supporting magnesium and vitamins B3 and B6) to enhance the eye-shutting effects.
9. Low-Fat Yogurt Parfait
For a tryptophan triple treat, combine low-fat Greek yogurt, honey, and some banana. Yogurt and bananas both contain tryptophan, and the carbs from the banana will help the tryptophan-rich foods get absorbed by the brain. Need something a bit more filling? Mix in some raw oats (they’ll soften in the yogurt), which are a prime source of tryptophan.
10. Peanut Butter On Whole Grain
The "whole" part is important. Whole grains include the germ of the grain, which is removed during the refining of whole wheat grains into white flour. This germ includes important B vitamins such as folate and vitamin B6—both important micronutrients required for proper absorption of tryptophan—as well as magnesium to loosen your muscles. Pair it with tryptophan-containing peanut butter (and perhaps some bananas and honey) to help you catch some ZZZs. Not sure which peanut butter is a healthy pick? We compared all the popular options to drum up a special report, The 36 Top Peanut Butters—Ranked.
11. Cottage Cheese
Completely avoiding food before bedtime can actually be bad for your weight loss goals. Instead of going to sleep with a rumbling belly, have a little cottage cheese. Not only is it rich in casein protein—a slow releasing milk protein that will keep hunger at bay through the night—it also contains the amino acid tryptophan. Mix it with hummus for a savory spread and an added tryptophan boost (the amino acid is also found in chickpeas!), or with guacamole for some muscle-relaxing magnesium!
12. Passionflower Tea
What ailment can't be solved with a cup of tea? At least not sleeplessness! Many herbal teas offer sedative effects through their flavones, flavanoids, and resins. For starters, passionflower tea has the flavone chrysin, which has wonderful anti-anxiety benefits and is mild sedative, helping you calm nervousness so you can sleep at night.
13. Lemon Balm
Another relaxing tea is lemon balm. A European study found that lemon balm serves as a natural sedative, and researchers reported that they observed reduced levels of sleep disorders among subjects using lemon balm versus those who were given a placebo. Make the most of the benefits from tea with The 7-Day Flat-Belly Tea Cleanse! Test panelists lost up to 10 pounds in one week!
14. Valerian Tea
Valerian is a herb that's long been valued as a mild sedative, and now research is showing what tea enthusiasts have known for centuries. In a study of women, researchers gave half the test subjects a valerian extract and half a placebo. Thirty percent of those who received valerian reported an improvement in the quality of their sleep, versus just 4 percent of the control group. While researchers have yet to identify the exact active ingredient, they suspect that receptors in the brain may be stimulated to hit "sleep mode" when coming in contact with valerian.
15. Hop Tea
Legend has it that when workers were gathering hops for the master brewer's latest beer, they kept falling asleep on the job! People began to realize there was a sedative property to the hops, and they started using them in teas to aid with sleeplessness. Now, researchers found its pharmacological activity is due primarily to the bitter resins in its leaves. Acting in a similar way to melatonin, hops increase the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, which helps combat anxiety. While hops have been used for centuries to aid with sleep, studies have only been able to prove its effectiveness when combined with valerian.
And Now… The Worst
1. Coffee & Soda
We hope you'd know this one by now! But in case you need a little background info: "Caffeine can stimulate the central nervous system several hours after consuming it," say The Nutrition Twins, Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT and Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CDN, CFT. "If you're at all sensitive to it, you will probably lie awake." Caffeine's stimulating effects can last anywhere from 8 to 14 hours, so make sure to keep your sleep in mind when you're thinking about the timing of that cuppa joe or afternoon diet soda. We'd recommend laying off around 8 hours before you're planning to hit the hay.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that chocolate treat after dinner isn't doing your REM any favors. Like coffee, dark chocolate also contains caffeine, which can increase arousal, prevent your body from shutting down, and decrease your ability to develop and sustain deeper stages of sleep. Chocolate bars have varying amounts of caffeine, but an average 2-ounce, 70 percent dark chocolate bar contains around 79 milligrams—over half of what's in an 8-ounce cup of coffee. If you know you're sensitive to caffeine, but don't want to ditch the dark chocolate completely, try savoring your sweet treat earlier on in the night or cutting down on portions.
That nightcap might be doing the opposite of its intention. While a late-night glass of wine can help relax you and help you fall asleep faster, it actually prevents your body from fully indulging in its REM (Rapid Eye Movement) cycle, which is where truly restful sleep and dreaming occurs. According to nutritionist Mitzi Dulan, RD, "Research shows that drinking alcohol before bed can make you more likely to wake up throughout the night and diminishes quality of sleep. We also know alcohol can lead to snoring since it is a potent muscle relaxer." For a little motivation to cut back on the booze, check out these amazing benefits of giving up alcohol!
4. Fatty Foods
We're talking about the usual suspects here, like burgers, loaded burritos, and ice cream sundaes. (Yep, you'll have to say bye-bye to Ben and Jerry before bed!) "These high-fat foods take longer to digest," offer The Nutrition Twins, which they explain will keep your body up working rather than relaxing. Fatty foods "often cause bloating and indigestion that interferes with a sound night's rest," they continue. This leads to a more fragmented sleep, so you wake up the next morning without feeling refreshed.
5. High-Sugar Cereals
Pass right by the Fruit Loops, please. "Eating high-sugar cereals will make your blood sugar spike and crash, which will affect your sleep," says nutritionist Lisa DeFazio, MS, RDN. She continues, "choose cereal with less than five grams of sugar per serving."
6. Hot Peppers & Spicy Foods
Spicy foods are a go-to when it comes to revving up your metabolism, but they're also ruining your chances of falling asleep. Spices like cayenne and Tabasco get their metabolism-boosting properties from capsaicin, which can trigger heartburn in sensitive individuals. Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, explains this compound gets your blood flowing as well, "Its thermogenic properties can increase the body's core temperature." Since your core temperature naturally decreases as you get ready to sleep, raising it can cause you to feel more awake and struggle with staying asleep.
7. A High-Protein or High-Fat Dinner
A little lesson in logic: "You may think a high-protein or high-fat dinner will keep you full all night, preventing you from waking. But research shows that eating a high-protein meal before bed can lead to sleep disturbances," explains Palinski-Wade. Experts believe it's because a protein rich meal contributes less tryptophan—the amino acid which is a precursor to the calming hormone serotonin—than it does other amino acids. A lower tryptophan to other large amino acids ratio actually reduces serotonin. And, like many other foods on this list, you may wind up with indigestion or acid reflux since you'll be lying down with a full stomach.
8. Dried Fruit
Consuming too much of a high-fiber food like dried fruit can bother your stomach and cause you to have gas and cramps during the night, according to DeFazio. "This is thanks to their high-fiber, low-water content." Come morning, don't eat 'em, either. They're one of the top foods nutritionists wish you would stop adding to your oats.
You might want to rethink having that tall glass of H2O on your bedside table—unless you're saving it for the morning. "Yes, you should drink plenty of water during the day to stay hydrated. In fact, even slight dehydration can significantly drain your energy levels," offers Palinski-Wade. "But if you drink too much right before bed, you may find yourself awakening multiple times to urinate. Instead, start to taper off your fluid intake about three hours before bedtime." To chug more water during the day and help aid your weight loss efforts, try one of these delicious detox waters!
A slice of pizza might satisfy your late-night cravings, but it'll leave you worse off in the A.M. "The combination of fat in the cheese and the acid in the tomato sauce can have a negative impact on your sleep quality," says Palinski-Wade. "High-acid foods can trigger acid reflux, especially when eaten close to bedtime. Even if you don't feel 'heartburn,' this reflux can cause you to awaken partially from sleep and leave you tired the next day."
Leave those apres-dinner mints on the check and head home! There are plenty of health benefits of mint, but sleeping well isn't one of them. "Many people pop peppermints into their mouths after dinner to freshen their breath," says Hayim. "Some people have it in their tea thinking it will soothe them. But, as it turns out, peppermint is a heartburn trigger. So, definitely stay away from it before bed!"
12. Green Tea
We are huge fans of fat-incinerating green tea, but make sure to taper off several hours before bedtime, at the least. On top of caffeine, green tea contains two other stimulants, called theobromine and theophylline, which Hayim tells us may cause increased heart rate, feelings of nervousness, and overall anxiety.
13. Fries and Ketchup
This fast-food combo serves up a double whammy when it comes to disrupting those sweet dreams. Fries are greasy, which is a sign that they’re high in fat, and will keep you up as your body tries to digest them. Dipping them in ketchup is asking for more trouble. "Ketchup is extremely acidic thanks to the tomatoes it's made with," offers Hayim. "In addition to the acid that is naturally there, ketchup is usually preserved with other chemicals that make them even more acidic and may lead to heartburn." Watch out for tomato sauce, too: "Pasta and marinara sauces can contribute to indigestion and heartburn," The Nutrition Twins say. "This is especially important if you're prone to indigestion. When you lie down to go to bed, digestion slows, and the horizontal position can make heartburn and indigestion even worse."
14. Raw Onions
Being able to kiss someone goodnight isn't the only reason to give up these guys right before bedtime. "Onions can cause gas that affects the pressure in your stomach," says Hayim, which can result in acid to enter back into your throat—not a pleasant feeling when you're trying to catch some ZZZ's. She explains, "Studies have found that raw onions can cause potent and long-lasting feelings of reflux in people who already have heartburn." Now that's something to toss and turn over. So even if you're eating healthy on those late nights at the office, be sure to nix these from your salad—along with these 18 Foods Making Your Heartburn Worse, too.
15. Too Much Food
While you shouldn't go to bed starving (that presents its own body-busting problems, like depleting your lean muscle storage), you also shouldn't hit the sack completely stuffed. When you eat a large meal before bed, your body is working to digest it long into the night—and if your body is still worked up, so are you. The later you fall asleep, the less rest you'll get, and you'll wake up feeling groggy and more likely to reach for calorie-dense items.
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