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December 06, 2021 4 min read

By Markita Lewis, MS, RD

Do you ever find yourself standing in front of your fridge or looking through the pantry for a late-night snack, even if you’ve already eaten dinner? This habit can feel quite normal, but our desire for a morsel to nibble in the late hours may mean that our day isn’t exactly balanced.

Why You Should Avoid Late-Night Eating

While there may be times when late-night eating is unavoidable, habitual late-night eating can thwart a healthy lifestyle.

Eating late at night may negatively impact your circadian rhythm — the internal clock that helps regulate your mind, body and behaviors on a 24-hour cycle.

A small 2020 study found that adults who ate dinner at 10:00pm had greater glucose intolerance, a decrease in fat metabolism, and increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) compared with those who ate dinner at 6:00 pm.

These changes in metabolism as seen in the study are factors that could contribute to weight gain and increase risk for metabolic syndrome.

Other studies have found that having large late-night meals and snacks may make weight maintenance or weight loss more difficult to achieve, due to disruptions in circadian rhythms.

If you want to keep your circadian rhythm in check to stay healthy, here are some tips on how to stop snacking at night.

Balance Meals

One of the biggest reasons why we tend to snack at night is because we don’t eat balanced meals.

Research shows that people experience greater satiety with meals that are high in protein and fiber, and have more carbohydrates than fat.

You can balance your meals using MyPlate or similar methods for healthy eating to increase meal satisfaction. Aim for having lean proteins, non-starchy vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats on your dinner plate.

Eat Without Distractions

Many of us may eat at night in front of the television, on our devices or even while doing some type of work at home. When our minds are distracted while we eat, our brains tend to make us “forget” what we’ve eaten and we feel less satisfied with our meal. Not only does distracted eating increase your food intake during the meal, it can make you more likely to eat more food later on.

Mindful eating is a practice that helps increase awareness of food intake by asking us to pay attention to our food and the sensory experience of eating. It may slightly help decrease the frequency of eating sweet snacks and decrease the amount eaten while snacking.

Mindful eating may include behaviors such as eating at a table, turning off all devices slowing down to savor your food, and paying attention to fullness cues.

Don’t Skip Early Meals

Some people who want to lose weight may skip breakfast or lunch and have their bigger meals towards the evening, which can also increase the likelihood of late-night snacking.

One study of Japanese women found that those who ate a late dinner or bedtime snacks were more likely to skip breakfast. These women also had a higher probability of being overweight/obese, possibly related to disrupted circadian rhythms.

If you do intermittent fasting, research suggests that an early intermittent fasting schedule may be more aligned with maintaining circadian rhythms and improving satiety.

Aim to have your largest meals earlier in the day and a moderate-sized meal for dinner, with at least two to four  hours between your last meal and bedtime.

Establish a Reasonable Sleep Schedule

Sleep deprivation can alter the balance of hormones that control hunger. It triggers the production of ghrelin — a stomach hormone that increases appetite — and reduces leptin — a hormone that reduces hunger.

Inadequate sleep is associated with higher calorie intake, lower diet quality, and irregular food intake resulting in increased snacking on unhealthy foods.

To help reset the balance between your hormones and avoid negative health outcomes, adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night.

Monitor Emotional Eating

The Japanese phrase kuchisabishii, which roughly translates to “lonely mouth,” refers to the need to eat and snack on things, even if we’re not hungry. In English, we refer to this feeling as “boredom eating” or “emotional eating,”which is eating to cope with emotions such as stress, depression, anxiety or anger.  Studies find that emotional eating can lead to weight gain and dysregulated eating patterns.

Emotional eating can be a serious issue for some, and seeking professional counseling from a health professional who specializes in emotional eating and emotion regulation may be the best method of treatment.

If you’re eating out of boredom, doing things such as joining online communities, speaking with friends and family, finding new games, engaging in new hobbies, meditation and even taking a short walk or drive can give you the spark to engage your attention without reaching for food.

Learning how to stop snacking at night can be a process, but it starts with self-awareness. Take a look at your meals, eating schedule and habits, sleep patterns and even your emotional well-being to see what areas may need some balance and improvement. From there, try strategies that work best for you and over time your late-night trips to the kitchen may become easier to skip.

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