How to Eat at Night & Still Lose Weight
Nighttime Snacking Dos & Don’ts
Weight Loss Saboteur
The issue of whether eating at night causes weight gain is still hotly debated among researchers and dieters alike.
One 2011 study published in the journal “Obesity” found that night eating did in fact have a connection to weight gain. Though the reasoning remains unknown, the study demonstrated that eating after 8 p.m. was associated with a higher body mass index. Similarly, another study, published in 2013 in the “International Journal of Obesity” found that when dieters ate their largest “dinner-type” meal before 3 p.m. they lost significantly more weight than their counterparts that ate their largest meal later in the day.
Research has yet to definitively explain why night eating may contribute to weight gain, but many in the field of obesity and nutrition believe it may be because eating at night throws the body—particularly the metabolism—off its regular rhythm. Additionally, “as the body prepares for sleep, digestion slows down” so eating too much at night can cause discomfort and interrupted sleep, explains Registered dietitian Jacqueline Aizen.
But experts generally agree that as long as what you’re having is a small-portioned, healthy snack (more on what that really means below), and the snack keeps you within your daily-allotted calories, you can still lose weight or maintain a healthy weight while snacking at night.
“If you had healthy meals throughout the day without overeating and are hungry at night, a healthy snack right before bed won’t harm you,” says registered dietitian Andrea Wilcox. You may also especially need a snack at night if you workout after dinner.
But when eating at night, we’re often going over the number of calories we should have in a day, and we’re often reaching for the wrong foods, even if they’re seemingly healthy. So there’s an art to doing it right.
What to Eat at Night
For a healthy nighttime snack, pair a healthy protein and carbohydrate, recommends registered dietitian Peggy Korody. Also, try to stick to snacks in the 100 to 200 calorie range.
-Nuts and fruit
-Hummus and whole-wheat crackers
-Low-fat yogurt sprinkled with low-fat granola
-Oatmeal with almond milk
-Whole-wheat pita with a couple of thin slices of turkey
It may seem counterintuitive, but experts say you shouldn’t banish carbs before bed. “Carbohydrates can increase levels of tryptophan, a precursor for the ‘happy chemical’ serotonin, and can contribute to feeling more relaxed,” explains Jacqueline Aizen, R.D.
Keep in mind that if you are diabetic, you should work closely with your dietitian to know what you should eat before bed to keep your blood sugar levels stable—usually a starch paired with protein about a half hour before bedtime.
What Not to Eat at Night
Avoid unhealthy foods (obviously) and eating anything that may prevent you from getting deep, restful sleep. Remember that getting proper sleep is critical for weight loss and curbing daytime food cravings.
This means you want to avoid foods that are too fatty, sugary, heavy in protein or sodium-rich, Jacqueline Aizen, R.D., recommends.
Excessive Protein & Fatty Foods
High protein meats, particularly red meat, take a lot of energy to digest, and eating these late at night can cause discomfort and interrupt your sleep. You should still have protein in your bedtime snack, but not an excessive amount. The same goes for fatty foods.
Avoid sugary, low-glycemic index foods (think dessert-like foods, even if they are small quantities), as they can cause your blood sugar and energy levels to spike and then rapidly fall, which interrupts proper sleep.
Not only is alcohol known for disrupting sleep if consumed before bed, but it can also cause you to gain weight. You don’t have to just be mindful of the extra calories you consume when drinking, you also have to remember that your body is going to process the alcohol out of your system before it even begins to metabolize that meal in your belly. And don’t forget, after a drink or two, inhibitions are always lowered which may lead you to reason that an extra bedtime snack is warranted.
Try to have dinner at least two to three hours before bedtime to curb snacking, ease digestion and help ensure deep sleep. Eating too large a meal can make you feel uncomfortable as your body tries to digest while lying down and actually end up slowing digestion. Digesting large quantities of food can also prevent you from achieving deep sleep.
Because quality sleep is key to weight loss, avoid coffee and soda after 3 p.m. and make sure that your late night snack does not include caffeine-containing foods like chocolate (so sad!).
How to Curb Late Night Eating
If you want to seriously cut back on late night eating, follow these tips:
Review Your Daily Intake
First take a look at what you’re eating throughout the day, at what times and how much—keep a food journal or use a food tracking app to keep tabs on your carbs, protein, sodium and nutrient intake. By tracking your food you can see when to schedule your meals and what size they should be.
“I recommend making your breakfast bigger, your lunch big and a snack before dinner,” explains holistic health coach Tara Milhem. “You also want to make sure you are not losing out on any key nutrients that are causing you to raid your kitchen at 10 p.m.”
Make sure you’re staying hydrated throughout the day. Drink about 72 ounces of water, plus more if you’re working out or it’s a hot day. Oftentimes dehydration can make you feel like you’re hungry, when really you just need another few glasses of H2O.
Hot, Soothing Beverages
Next time you feel a case of the midnight munchies coming on, exercise physiologist and nutritionist Luci Gabel recommends sipping on a cup of hot herbal tea or hot water with lemon, honey and either cayenne pepper, cinnamon or ginger. “The warm water will actually help you to feel calm and satisfied while the spices and honey will satisfy your cravings,” she explains.
Close the Kitchen
If all else fails, Milhem recommends setting a time you close the kitchen. Stick to it and preoccupy your mind with reading or TV, take the dog for a walk, or take a hot bath. Or, just try to go to bed. When you’re tired, willpower can be at its lowest. See if you can fall asleep without munching on a snack—a few ZZZs may be all the nourishment your body needed to begin with.
When To Get Help
For a small percentage of women, night eating is not simply tiptoeing to the kitchen for that last chocolate chip cookie because you just wanna, but rather an actual uncontrollable eating disorder that wrecks havoc on their physical and mental wellbeing. Night Eating Syndrome (NES) commonly first shows up in women in their 20s and often manifests when one has a history of eating disorders or psychiatric disorders.
Frequent symptoms of Night Eating Syndrome include having no appetite for breakfast, eating more than half of your allotted daily food intake after dinner, and waking in the night and needing to eat before falling back to sleep.
If you find yourself relating to these symptoms (for at least a few months), make an appointment with your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment, which typically involves medication and counseling to help regulate anxiety or depression that may be spurring the disorder through an imbalance in the pituitary axis of the brain.
References: Baron, KG et al. (2011) Role of sleep timing in caloric intake and BMI. Obesity, 19(7): 1374-81.; anred.com/nes; uphs.upenn.edu/news/News_Releases/jan06/nighteating; huffingtonpost.com/stanford-center-for-sleep-sciences-and-medicine/sleep-eating_b_3705466; npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/01/30/170591028/to-maximize-weight-loss-eat-early-in-the-day-not-late; Garaulet, M., et al. (2013) Timing of food intake predicts weight loss effectiveness. International Journal of Obesity, 37, 604-611.
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