I’m a sucker for a big bowl of cereal right before bedtime. I don’t understand it, I likely never will, but the clock will strike 10 p.m., right in the middle of my Working Moms Netflix binge-fest, and suddenly it hits me. And oh, it hits hard. Not just a “Hm, you know what sounds good?” nudging, but more like a “GO GET YOUR MILK – NOW!” And, just as predictably, it comes with a side order of frustration and loathing for derailing a day of eating right (OK, mostly) and getting in my gym time.
Why Am I Doing This?
I’m far from alone. There’s some science to the cravings. According to researchers at Oregon Health & Science University, its origins can be traced back to our ancestors – that we’re wired down to our circadian system to hunger at night. Turns out it was a survival method for humans to store energy to survive longer in times of food scarcity. Which is great for them, but in this high-calorie current environment, it’s maybe a little too effective.
Moving up to the modern day, there are still plenty of reasons we find ourselves moseying around the cupboards or the fridge looking for a late-night nosh. Here are a few reasons:
– Restrictive eating during the day
– Unresolved emotions (e.g., sadness, anger)
– An eating disorder
But…Is it That Bad?
There’s debate among medical professionals on the precise golden hour to stop eating, or even that it’s unhealthy by nature (depending on your snack of choice), but one study by Penn Medicine found that participants who ate later gained weight due to their bodies metabolizing fewer lipids and carbs compared to participants who ate earlier in the day. Those participants also saw increased insulin, fasting glucose, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.
The same study even found that participants who ate earlier in the day saw the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, peak earlier in the daytime, while leptin, the hormone that maintains that feeling of fullness, didn’t peak until later in the day. This suggests that eating earlier may help prevent overeating in the evening and at night.
But there’s also modern weight loss wisdom – which teaches that is a calorie is a calorie, no matter what time of day you take it in. The key to weight loss is calories in from food and drink, and calories out from daily living and exercise. So, if your hunger spikes at night and you want to do it in a healthy fashion, you’ll need to monitor and portion out your meals throughout the day to meet your caloric needs without exceeding with your nighttime meal.
So again, the jury is still out on if eating in the evening or nighttime is necessarily a bad habit, but if you’re like me (eating an unhealthy snack just because I’m craving it), it isn’t the best habit. Fortunately, there are ways to break it.
Know Your Triggers
Sometimes that trigger is really hunger – meaning you haven’t eaten enough, or eaten the right kinds of food, to keep you full into the evening. But, as stated below, many times eating in the evening really has nothing to do with being hungry at all, but more about being bored, sad or angry, or just doing it out of habit (e.g., when you watch a movie, you have to eat popcorn, because the two go hand-in-hand, even if you aren’t hungry).
Experts believe that if you’re able to recognize the emotions or reasoning behind your late night cravings, you can work to break the cycle. One idea is to create a “food and mood” journal, where you can track your cravings and how you were feeling at the time. Then you can start working toward some other coping mechanisms that might serve you better for your health and fitness goals – like taking a quick walk, calling a friend, or pursuing another creative outlet, like journaling or drawing.
Identify Your Cravings…And Recognize What Else They Could Be
We are all suckers for different kinds of foods when we’re looking for a mindless nosh. And we all know that quick, easy food isn’t always the winner on the nutrition front. Instead, think chips, candy, and ice cream.
A study from an international journal on obesity found that of 104 participants with obesity, 45% chose sweets in the evening and night. Yet another article cites sleepiness as a possible precursor to picking sweet or salty treats instead of something healthier while at night. Similar to stress, the hormones leptin, cortisol, ghrelin and serotonin trigger feelings of hunger and the desire for “feel good” food – especially salt.
But again, just because you’re up for a snack doesn’t mean you need one. Instead, experts suggest doing a quick head-to-toe check to ensure there isn’t something else causing your cravings that can be fixed without food.
Other causes of cravings and how to beat them:
- Fatigue: make sure you’re getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.
- Stress: could hormones from stress in your life make you want to feel better with food?
- Dehydration: maybe try drinking a glass of water before having a snack.
- Insufficient nutrition: Are you eating enough for your main meals of the day? Make sure you’re eating enough protein and fiber in your diet to keep you full into the evening.
Putting together your cravings and some possible underlying non-hunger causes can help break the cycle of excess snacking.
If You Snack…Plan Your Portions
Sometimes you want a treat, and that’s fine! But treat yourself in a smart way. Experts say the best way to do this is to keep an eye on just how much you’re eating. Sitting in front of the TV can make it easy to mindlessly crunch chips or dip the spoon in and out of the tub of ice cream. Instead, health experts suggest, portion out a bowl of your favorite snack, enjoy it, and then quit for the night.
Snacking in the evening or at night can be a fun way to end the day, but it can morph into too much of a good thing in a hurry. So eat when you’re hungry, enjoy the occasional treat, and take care of all aspects of your health morning, noon, and night.
Your metabolism doesn’t shut off at 7 PM. But as long as you have your total daily calories checked, you won’t gain weight. But if you constantly eat way too much then you will regardless of what time you eat.
Kendra Whittle is a writer, novice CrossFitter, marathon runner and triathlete. She lives in St. Louis with her husband, three kids and two dogs.