Regain Control of Your Nighttime Snacking
Have you ever found yourself heading back into the kitchen for a little (or a lot) of something to eat after dinner? Most of us have. Whether this is a once in a blue moon type of activity or a regular occurrence can have widespread effects on both your health and weight. Deciding to take control of your after-dinner snacking habit is a great decision.
While snacking before dinner is necessary for some, like those with type 1 diabetes, eating at times that contradict with your natural circadian rhythms can also impede your cognitive abilities. (Hmm, perhaps those late nights studying and eating pizza in college weren’t a good idea?) Research has also shown that calories eaten at night are even more likely to lead to weight gain than identical calories eaten during the daylight hours. This might be due to the fact that calories consumed at night are more likely to be stored as fat than burned for energy. It’s no wonder that regular late-night snacking is correlated with obesity.
The Benefits of Not Snacking at Night
The benefits of not snacking at night are many. Some evidence suggests that skipping the nighttime snack and limiting food intake to an eight to twelve-hour window each day may help prevent high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity, all common and growing problems for Americans.
Even if your post-dinner snacks are not typically late in the night, adding more calories to your daily total after dinner may not be a good choice for the simple reason that most of us don’t need more calories by then. By the time dinner is finished, you've most likely eaten enough for the day!
Eating late at night can also interfere with sleep quality and for some people (like me!) cause them to wake up even hungrier in the morning.
Clearly, benefits are to be found in questioning your own nighttime snacking habits to see if they are really serving your best interests.
The First Step to Controlling Nighttime Snacking
As a holistic health coach, my approach is to help clients understand the underlying causes of the unhealthy habits that don’t serve their goals and address them in order to create new and improved health-supporting habits. So, when you consider late night snacking, the first thing to examine is why you do it and then look for any triggers that may be setting it off for you.
The reasons people eat at night are numerous. While some people, having not eaten enough during the day to fuel their activity level, are truly hungry, for the majority of people, there’s usually another reason.
The next time you feel the urge to have a snack after dinner time, simply take a moment to ask yourself why it is you want a snack. Is your stomach really empty? Are you craving something specific? Or is it because you are feeling something that you think food can soothe or solve?
Why Do You (Honestly) Eat at Night? It could be:
Cravings due to a deficiency (or advertising!)
Inability to fall asleep
A desire to reward/treat yourself
A need to do something fun (alone or with a spouse/roommate/partner)
Or something else!
Once you identify the reason you want to eat, ask yourself, what triggered this feeling?
When you look for triggers, they can be an activity you engage in, like reading the news online (that might cause stress or worry), watching TV (all those commercials for food!) or engaging in a stressful relationship (being with a certain person always lead to “eating your feelings” afterwards).
Triggers can also come from the kind of day you had. Did you get enough sleep the night before? Did you exercise? Some people feel more like snacking when they are tired or haven’t exercised.
Triggers can also be a general feeling, like boredom or loneliness or the presence of a certain food in the house that you find hard to resist in the evenings. Willpower, after all, is a muscle, that gets tired, especially if you use it all day!
Once you know the cause, you can choose to react differently.
If it’s the presence of certain foods which are tempting you, you might want to consider not keeping them in your house. If it’s a feeling, see how you can address it in another way by finding an alternate behavior. Sometimes the desire to snack goes away if you simply change your location or choose a different activity. (It’s best if the behavior addresses the root cause of your desire to snack or is something you can’t eat while doing.)
Instead of snacking, you might:
Reach out to a friend
Engage in a hobby
Write in a journal
Take a bath or shower
Make yourself a cup of tea
Drink a glass of water
Go for a walk
Read a book (to yourself or someone else!)
Brush and floss your teeth
Get ready for bed (even if you aren’t ready to sleep)
Clean up or organize a space in your home
These kinds of activities can also act as a speed bump, just like those on the roads that run by the schools in town. Your chosen "speed bump" activity can help you slow down, be considerate and pay attention to what you are doing. It might be enough to help you decide you don’t actually want or need a snack.
Personally, I’ve noticed that I am much more likely to eat after dinner if I stay downstairs and watch TV than if I got upstairs and read a book. So, I make it a habit on weeknights to go upstairs by 8:30 or 9:00, brush my teeth, get ready for bed, tuck the girls in and then read until I get sleepy. This habit works so well, it annoys my husband who sometimes tries to tempt me with a glass of wine or a movie and a snack after 9pm because 99% of the time I say no! I stick to it though because nighttime routines like this can help you fall asleep more easily because your body gets used to following the same pattern, as you gradually “power down” for the day.
Finally, if despite your speed bump activity, you occasionally find yourself in need of a night time snack or staying up later for a special occasion and get hungry, don’t despair. Choose a small snack of whole, nutrient dense foods and enjoy it guilt-free. A banana and a few nuts, like my favorite Smokehouse Almonds, a piece of whole grain toast with nut butter or some hummus with some raw vegetables are good choices. Or for a movie night, have some popcorn, a low calorie source of whole grains.
If you are regularly hungry at night, it might be because you are restricting your calories too much during the day. In which case, you should focus on eating more earlier in the day.
Remember that your health and weight are influenced by what you do most of the time, not those occasional exceptions to the norm.
Your Turn: What’s the best way you’ve found to avoid the temptation to snack at night?