It’s a weekday evening and dinner has been eaten, the dishes have been washed, and all that’s left to do before bed is to watch a DVR’d episode of The Biggest Loser. Before I know it, I’m watching Jillian Michaels run an obese person ragged while I run to the kitchen for a little something to eat. With every TV temptation challenge, I feel compelled to dig into the pantry and pullout pretzels, cheese and crackers, or anything else I can eat that doesn’t require utensils (except possibly ice cream).
Frankly, it’s not just The Biggest Loser. The desire to dine after dinner and late at night is a problem many people face as they watch TV, surf the Web, or relax after a long workday. It certainly doesn’t help that late-night snacking usually means reaching for the high-fat, high-calorie snack foods you’ve successfully avoided during daylight hours. If you’re trying to lose weight, or just maintain it, late-night snacking is a major no-no.
“Whether you’ve had your normal daily meals or have been skipping meals, which may lead to excessive hunger in the wee hours of the night,” says Gwen Stacy, a public health dietician for the Ohio Department of Health, “Late night snacking can lead to a habit of poor food choices and produce unwanted pounds.”
Our metabolism is supposed to slow down during the evening so the body can rest. Food consumed after-hours can’t be processed as efficiently because our bodies aren’t as active, and what energy we do have needed to rest and recover is then spent on digesting that food. When that midnight snack is not properly processed, results can include morning gas, stomach cramps, bloating, and ultimately, weight gain.
“Some key things to remember when trying to avoid late-night snacking is to not skip meals but instead eat a well-balanced diet,” says Stacy. But if that isn’t enough to curb eating when you shouldn’t, here are five goals to aim for when trying to tame evening cravings:
Goal 1: Stop eating three hours before bedtime.
Forget Oprah’s “I never eat after 7 p.m.” Every individual’s schedule is different and not everyone has the luxury, ability, or desire to be in bed by 10 p.m. But by giving your body three hours to digest your din-din, the remaining energy can be spent on rest so that you can wake up energized the next day.
Goal 2: If you cave in and snack late, reach for something healthy.
By the end of the day, our defenses are down, and finding the willpower to reach for an apple, rather than a bag of chips, is tough to muster. The truth is you’d be better off eating those potato chips earlier in the day when your body’s metabolism is working at its peak. As metabolism begins to slow down, it’s best to reach for those healthier, low-calorie snacks. “If you still feel hunger pangs, try low-fat yogurt, fresh fruit, or a whole-grain cereal with fat-free milk,” says Stacy. “Remember that late-night snacking can happen, so be prepared by having healthy food choices in your home.”
Goal 3: Identify if you’re really hungry, or just bored.
Chances are when you find yourself stalking the kitchen after dinner, you’re doing it out of boredom, not appetite. Before you reach for the chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, brew a cup of herbal tea or take the dog for a walk. If neither of those distractions settles your stomach, perhaps you need a small bowl of cereal or a piece of fruit, but be honest and ask yourself, “Am I really hungry, or simply bored?” If the latter is true, find a distraction like calling a friend, catching up on your emails, or reading in bed.
Goal 4: Only eat at the kitchen or dining room table.
Grabbing a bag of popcorn and plopping down on the couch begins to build the chronic habit of eating whenever the boob-tube’s on. As someone who lives in a small apartment without a kitchen table (only a coffee table in front of the TV), I know I’m conditioned to nosh while watching my stories, because my “kitchen table” is in front of my TV. This is a very difficult cycle to break, but if you can commit to eating at some sort of kitchen table, you’ll be able to curb the need to graze while catching the latest episode of Real Housewives.
Goal 5: Practice portion control
Maybe it was a super-busy day and you didn’t get adequate calories at lunch or dinner and you’re truly ravenous at 9 p.m. Before you go crazy in the kitchen and open that jar of dry-roasted peanuts or carton of gelato, find a small bowl to hold a small portion. Eating directly from the container or jar will almost always result in overeating. If you can regulate your portion size, you can combat that unhealthy practice.
With a syndrome for every ailment and issue, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Night Eating Syndrome (NES) exists. People diagnosed with NES consume 25-50% of their daily calories after dinner and generally display signs of depression, low self-esteem, obesity, and have a difficult time managing stress. NES can be treated with the help of a psychiatrist and eating disorder specialist, and by talking to a therapist about managing triggers and stress.