It’s late, you’re curled up on the sofa with a good book or movie, and you’re comfy warm. What’s missing? Snacks! Or you wake up after sleeping for several hours and you’re heading for the refrigerator or pantry. You’re craving ice cream, cookies, potato chips, cheese curls, chocolate…but wait!
You know late night snacking is not a healthy habit. In fact, some late night snackers consume more than one quarter of their calories at night. Research suggests the body’s internal clock regulates calorie use differently at night, and therefore late night snacking can result in significant weight gain. That’s because your metabolism is more “on” during the day than it is at night. Late night calories don’t get burned as well as those do during the day.
So how can you stop late night snacking? Several strategies can be effective, but first you need to identify why you are choosing to consume so many calories at night. Then you can make an informed decision about how to change your snacking habits.
Why do you snack late at night?
Some of us get so busy during the day we forget or don’t have time to eat. If you severely limit your caloric intake during the day, either consciously or unconsciously, then you may tend to binge late at night. Often, however, mindless late night snacking is caused by boredom or fatigue. In some cases, an eating disorder, such as night eating syndrome or binge eating, may be behind the snacking habit. Both of these eating habits are associated with depression, sleeping problems, and obesity. Once you identify the cause of your late snacking habit, you will have a clue as to how to find a solution.
What are your snacking triggers?
This question is different than the first one, because you are zeroing in on exact triggers for your snacking activities. Are you eating because you are depressed? Anxious? Bored? Sad? Frustrated? Are you even hungry? What are you doing immediately before you reach for a snack? Keep a journal of every time you reach for food at night and identify the reason why. Once you pinpoint the culprit, you can address it and break the emotional cycle of eating.
Do you eat regular meals?
One reason for late night snacking is poor meal planning during the day. If you are skimping on daytime nutritious meals, then you are more likely to feel cravings for food at night, and they are likely not to be healthy choices! Also, planning nutritious meals and snacks for daytime consumption will curb your desire to binging at night.
Are you managing stress?
If your late night snacking is tied into stress and emotional eating, they it’s time to establish some fun and effective stress-reduction routines. Whether you want to do yoga, tai chi, meditation, progressive relaxation, visualization, bubble baths, stretching exercises, deep breathing, and/or watching cat videos, be sure to practice daily, even several times a day.
Do you balance eating throughout the day?
Some people who focus on late night eating have disordered eating, which can be remedied by establishing and sticking to a scheduled eating plan. Consuming planned meals and snacks throughout the day can not only keep your blood sugar levels in harmony but also regulate your energy and moods. When these factors are balanced, you are much less likely to want to binge and/or to make poor food choices. Your planned meals and snacks do not need to include many calories but should focus on nutritious, fresh foods that provide protein, fiber, and nutrients.
Do you have junk food in your house?
If the answer is yes, it’s time to remove it. Give it away, donate it, or throw it away; just don’t eat it. Keeping junk food in the house is like promoting a see food diet: if you see it you will eat it. Replace the junk food with fresh fruits and veggies, hot air popcorn, plain yogurt, raw nuts and seeds (in moderate amounts), and salsa.
Do you eat enough protein?
If you are binge or overeating because of hunger, you may not be getting enough protein. The body takes longer to digest protein, which means you will feel fuller longer when you consume protein foods. According to one study from the University of Kansas Medical Center, frequently eating high protein meals can reduce the desire to eat at night by 50 percent.
Are you distracted?
Here’s a time when you want to be distracted. If you begin to think about food late at night, you need a distraction-a hobby or activity that will draw your attention away from food. Sometimes location also is a trigger, so your distraction may also include moving out of the living room or kitchen or wherever you are used to snacking late at night.
Do you have some emotional support?
If you believe you are experiencing nighttime eating syndrome or binge eating, talk to a professional who can help you identify your triggers and develop a plan of action. One strategy that has proved helpful is cognitive behavioral therapy. In addition, there are support groups and forums you can access in person and on line.
The bottom line is that late nighttime eating is not healthy. If you are challenged by this activity, then take action now, beginning with the suggestions given here.
Berner LA, Allison KC. Behavioral management of night eating disorders. Psychology Research and Behavior Management 2013; 6:1-8
Leidy HJ et al. The influence of higher protein intake and greater eating frequency on appetite control in overweight and obese men. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2010 Sep; 18(9): 1725-32
McIntosh VVW et al. Psychotherapy for transadiagnostic binge eating: a randomized controlled trial of cognitive-behavioural therapy, appetite-focused cognitive-behavioural therapy, and schema therapy. Psychiatry Research 2016 Jun 30; 240: 412-20