There’s an old wives’ tale that eating cheese right before bed will give you weird dreams — or in some versions, outright nightmares. Most studies, of course, have found this to be bullshit. Although one of those studies was conducted by the (pun-built-in) British Cheese Board, which obviously has a significant stake in making sure that cheese doesn’t get a Freddy Krueger-esque reputation when it comes to sleep. So take that one with a grain of cracker-salt.
But that’s just cheese. It doesn’t mean that other foodstuffs aren’t fucking with your ZZZs. And so, we reached out to nutritionist Jason Boehm to better understand how late-night snacking affects the quality of your sleep. Below, he runs down the foods that’ll most mess with your night, in order of how disruptive they are — without once getting cheesy.
Candy, Ice Cream, Chocolate, Coffee or Anything Else Full of Sugar or Caffeine
This should go without saying, so we’re getting it out of the way early. These really are the worst options, though: Caffeine works by blocking your adenosine receptors, essentially meaning that the chemical that’s responsible for making you feel sleepy can’t get at your brain, keeping you awake. Sugar, meanwhile, delays your body’s release of melatonin, which controls your sleep-wake cycle, and can pull you out of deep sleep.
French Fries, Burritos and Chinese Food
You know what’s not fun at night? Waking up feeling so thirsty that you start drinking straight from the tap in the dark (although water never tastes as good as it does in that moment). To ensure that your tongue doesn’t turn into a slug after the clock strikes midnight, try to avoid anything loaded with sodium like the options listed above — admittedly a tricky proposition, since most late-night eats are packed with salt.
Anything With Onions, Chiles, Garlic or Hot Sauce
Heartburn is a bummer, especially at 3 a.m. Certain spicy or pungent foods promote this acid reflux in some people — and most frequently when they lie down after eating — which, in turn, irritates the esophagus. This can keep you from getting to sleep, wake you up with pain or gas, or both.
A nightcap might induce sleep, but it won’t keep you there, according to Boehm. That’s because it alters the production of necessary chemicals while you sleep, limiting the amount of REM sleep (the deepest and most restorative stage, when the vivid dreams happen) that you get. So if you want to drink, do it earlier in the evening, advises Boehm.
Chicken or Other Protein
Because of your body’s urea cycle, which facilitates protein breakdown, eating protein-heavy foods will make you more prone to peeing in the middle of the night, old-man-style. Who knew that had more to do with the turkey club you had for dinner than your age?
Adam Elder is a freelance writer in San Diego. He last ranked every item in a typical vending machine by how (un)healthy it is for you.