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Advice for avoiding midnight snacking

Are you a late night snacker? Do you find yourself reaching for a sweet or salty treat at the end of the evening? Do stress or emotions drive you towards ice cream in the fridge or that bag of chips in the pantry? You are not alone. Many Americans engage in late night eating for a myriad of reasons. Whether it be boredom, loneliness, frustration, habit or a lack of balanced meals throughout the day, eating late at night has become routine for many and is often in response to an emotion rather than a hunger cue. Studies show that late night eating can lead to weight gain which is associated with a host of chronic diseases.

Fortunately, there are many ways to dig deeper into what might be driving you to eat late at night and begin to understand how to not only acknowledge this behaviour, but to change it! Surprisingly, it starts with curiosity and kindness towards yourself.


Do

Do eat a balanced and nutritious dinner

Having a meal that has all of the major nutrients that we need to feel full is essential to avoiding the need for a late night snack. Very often we think we are “being good” and have a simple salad or some steamed vegetables for dinner. This is great, but it isn’t likely to satiate us for very long. Neither will a big bowl of plain pasta. We need carbohydrates (preferably higher in fiber), healthy fats, and lean proteins at each meal in order for the body to be satisfied and not continue to crave.

Do have healthy snacks available in your pantry

If you are going to snack, then being armed with healthier snacks can be helpful. If you go for crunch or salty, be sure to have nuts and seeds or whole grain crackers available with a savory bean dip. If you tend towards the sweet, then fresh or dried fruits with a little yogurt can fit the bill. More nutritious options help reduce potentially unhealthy calorie sources that are most often found in midnight treats.

Do eat mindfully and consciously

Chances are if you are eating late at night, it’s often in front of the TV or hidden away in your room. One of the best and hardest things you can do is to take the time to eat slowly, chew, breathe and enjoy the food. This rarely happens when we overeat, but when we stop for a moment to take in the experience of eating, we almost always eat less. When we slow down, the body gets the message that it is being fed and satisfaction comes with less food.

Do be curious about why you are overeating

It’s pretty easy to be hard on ourselves if we eat late at night. “Why did I do that” and “Here I go again” are often phrases people will say. Instead of judging yourself for the late night binge, get curious about it. What was going on for you stress wise or emotionally? Be kind to yourself as you explore what might be leading you to the fridge at this late hour. You can learn a lot if you turn the volume down on your inner critic.

Do try other activities that “feed” you

Very often, late night eating happens as a result of feeling empty and needing something to fulfill you. Try out other activities that may also provide you with stimulation and/or a sense of treating yourself. Make a pot of spicy tea. Watch a Ted Talk or listen to a radio program or pod cast that makes you laugh. Take a hot bath. Start cooking a soup or stew to have for the week. Find an activity that makes you smile so that eating may not have as big of a draw.


Don't

Do not skip meals...especially breakfast

The body is smart and designed to keep you energized. When we skip meals, the body senses a deficiency and will continue to crave food until it is satiated. Very often it goes for the item that it knows will give it the most amount of energy with the least amount of effort. This is often easily broken down sugary or salty carbs, like cookies or chips. Eating regularly keeps blood sugar balanced and reduces cravings.

Do not work out late at night

When we engage in physical activity, we are sending a message to our body to gear up and get ready for action. Our cortisol levels are raised, which essentially is a call to our body for additional fueling. Nighttime is meant for a wind down period. If we are revving up, it will very often increase our hunger signaling system. See if you can work out earlier in the day. If this is your only chance to get physical activity, then see if you can minimize it to once or twice/week.

Do not skimp on sleep

When we don’t get enough sleep, our body often compensates by craving food to make up for what it senses as a deficit in energy. Sleeping is a chance for our bodies to recover and regenerate. When we miss that cycle, or shortchange it, the natural rhythm of the body gets thrown off which can result in food cravings that come in the wee hours. This happens especially if we stay up extremely late. If you are at 7pm and you are still awake at 12am, it’s natural for the body to begin to think it needs fuel after 5 hours of no food.

Do not keep tons of processed snack food in the house

The further away it is from your mouth, the less likely you will eat it. Having lots of junk food easily available is going to make unhealthy late night eating twice as possible. Watch out for those large bags of chips available at outlets stores. Unless you have a huge party planned, having access to large quantities of goodies will make it all the harder to resist when a craving comes on strong.

Do not beat yourself up if you do overeat at night

So what? You ate late at night. Being unkind to yourself is only likely to make matters worse. Understand that changing habits is hard and takes time. You can try again tomorrow.


Summary
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Late night eating doesn’t have to be a lifetime struggle. The more we understand about the reasons it might be happening, the better chance we have of changing the pattern. Eating regular and balanced meals, eating mindfully and exploring the role of stress, emotions and habits are some great first steps in reducing those late evening trips to the kitchen. Experiment, explore, and give yourself time and space to allow for small changes to cement slowly over time.


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Mary Purdy, MS, RDIntegrative Registered Dietitian

Mary Purdy, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian with a Master's Degree in Clinical Nutrition from Bastyr University. She provides medical nutrition therapy and nutritional counseling at her Private Practice at the Seattle Healing Arts Center and is...

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