If you’re confused about whether late-night snacking is good or bad for, or whether the timing of your snacks will impact your fitness center goals, you’re not alone. Late-night trips to the refrigerator are often associated with weight gain and even poor sleep (which, ironically, often triggers the midnight munchies). Some health experts go as far as to pinpoint a certain time you should stop eating, usually several hours before bed time, while others say it’s okay to have an evening snack.

First, dispel the myth that it’s always bad for you to eat anything late in the day. The timing of your snacks is more a matter of personal preference than science. Rather than timing, the problems with late-night snacking have more to do with what you’re eating, how much of it, and how these impact your sleep patterns.

Snack-Size, Not Meal-Size

Eating a heavy snack (or meal, rather) later at night does activate your digestion and can keep you awake. Insufficient sleep, not eating too many calories late at night (a calorie is a calorie, no matter when you eat it) is the real link to weight gain.

You can still have a late-night snack, just keep it light. Many dieticians also suggest eating your heaviest meal during the most active part of your day rather than later in the evening. For most of us, this means lunch. Eating lighter at dinner and keeping any snacks you have post-dinner on the lighter side will keep them from interfering with your sleep patterns, and in turn, help you avoid weight gain.

What Not to Eat

Certain foods should be avoided late at night because they take longer to digest, stimulate you, or tend to encourage gas and acid reflux. Try to limit the following when you feel the need for a late snack:

• Excess protein
• Spicy foods
• High fat
• High fiber
• Caffeine
• Chocolate
• Alcohol

What A Healthy Late-Night Snack Looks Like

If you’re hungry and alert or tense, having a light, healthy snack before bed can encourage your body to relax and sleep. Try to look for foods that have a balance of carbohydrate and protein (slightly more carbohydrates), with the following additional hormones and nutrients:

Sleep inducers

• Tryptophan – lentils, beans, nuts, spinach, poultry and whole grains
• Melatonin – tart cherries or cherry juice, oats
• Vitamin B6 – lean meats, pistachios, raisins, apricots, spinach, bell peppers, broccoli, asparagus, turnip greens, sweet potatoes

Muscle relaxers

If you work out in the evening at the fitness gym, a light snack before bed can serve a dual purpose: re-fueling your body for repairs and relaxing your muscles. Look for these key nutrients:

• Potassium and magnesium – leafy greens, bananas, oranges, apricots, nuts, seeds, potatoes, whole grains, yogurt, milk

Snack Ideas

Your snacks will of course be based on your preferences, but here are a few healthy suggestions that follow these guidelines:

• A banana, apple, or whole grain crackers with nut butter
• Greek yogurt dips with veggies or plain yogurt with fruit
• A slice of whole-grain bread with nut butter or hummus
• Cottage cheese and fruit
• Dried fruit and nuts

Now that you know the truth about late-night snacking, you don’t need to feel quite so guilty about heading for the refrigerator to get a light, healthy, balanced snack. As always, use your snacking and meal strategy not simply as a diet, but to fuel your body and maximize your fitness center workouts.