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Nighttime Snacking: Why You Do It and How to Prevent It


Have you ever noticed that you have excellent willpower throughout the day to stick to your diet and exercise goals, but then things go haywire during the evening and nighttime hours? If so, you're not alone. It's easy to see why snacking late at night is so common. Maybe you're less busy and your evenings are less structured, giving way to mindless eating. Perhaps you have created a pattern of habits that you're now having trouble breaking, including snacking while preparing dinner, having desserts afterwards or mindlessly snacking while watching television or browsing the Internet. However, there may be physiological factors involved.

Your Biology is Working Against You

Yes, it turns out that biology may be working against you. Recent research is revealing that your internal clock, also called your circadian system, causes an increase in your hunger and signals your body to crave foods that are sweet, salty and high in starch, particularly when the clock strikes 8 p.m. A study just published in the research journal "Obesity" found that the participants' innate circadian rhythm regulated their hunger, showing that they felt the lowest amount of hunger at 8 a.m. and the highest level of hunger at 8:00 p.m.

This propensity to crave starchy, salty foods likely originated thousands of years ago so that our ancestors could build up their fat and energy stores when the food supply was scarce. However, it's now working to our disadvantage because we're constantly surrounded by high-calorie foods and have an increasingly-sedentary lifestyle, which contributes to weight gain.

Light is Also Working Against You

Scientists believe that since artificial light lets you stay up later than you should, you're awake during those hours when you're most likely to crave high-calorie foods and give in to those cravings. It's a vicious cycle because not only are you then storing more of those calories, you're also getting less sleep than you need, and these two factors can cause you to gain weight.

Tips for Breaking the Cycle

Practice Mindful Eating

Oftentimes you're eating mindlessly. This can happen if you're multitasking--common in today's busy society. If you're hurriedly eating dinner while catching up on emails, or eating your kids' unfinished foods after supper while tackling endless parenting duties, or snacking while running errands or completing tasks around the house, you're likely not paying attention to how you're eating. Take away the distractions. Sit at an actual table, turn off the television and computer, and eat slowly. Pay attention to your internal feeling of fullness and stop eating when you feel full.

Switch Up Your Nighttime Routine

If you find that you often eat more than you should at night, figure out ways to break your patterns and set yourself up for healthier routines. If you tend to take bites while cooking dinner, chew on a piece of gum until the meal is ready. While unwinding at night, instead of snacking endlessly in front of the TV, get little tasks done while you watch the tube--fold your laundry, sort your mail or pay bills--anything that keeps your hands busy may help you reshape your habits and your waistline.

Plan Your Meals Ahead of Time

When it comes to sticking to a healthy diet, one of the biggest steps you can take to get there is to plan your meals and snacks ahead of time. Having healthy options halfway-prepared can make evening meals and snacks a no-brainer. Have pre-cut vegetables ready for a quick, easy stir-fry. All you need to do is toss in a protein (lean meat, beans, tofu, eggs) and dinner is ready. Pre-portion out healthy snacks to munch on after dark if you still need a snack. Bags of 100-calorie popcorn are great (and whole-grain) as are cut-up fresh fruits or vegetables with a light dip.

Have Your Biggest Meal Earlier in the Day

Plan to have your largest meal at breakfast or lunch. You can use the fuel more efficiently because you're more active during the daytime. Research has shown that people who consume their highest-calorie meals at these times actually weigh less.

Go to Bed Earlier

Give yourself a "bedtime" and try to consistently get eight to nine hours of sleep each night. This healthy habit will help keep your appetite-regulating hormones in check. Set certain sleep-signaling habits up--getting into your bed at a specific time, reading a book, or establishing another relaxing activity that lets your body know it's time for sleep.

Log Your Foods

This isn't ground-breaking news, but it's so successful it's worth repeating. Keep a food journal and you'll be twice as likely to lose weight and keep it off for good.

The Bottom Line

There is a plethora of reasons that cause you to gain weight, with the most obvious being your dietary habits and exercise pattern. However, mounting research is showing that the time you eat may play a larger role than previously thought. Take steps to avoid late-night munching to stay at a healthy weight.



Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children. If you would be interested in working with Kari one-on-one, sign-up for FitDay Dietitians.

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