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COMMENTS
BY Alyse Levine MS, RD

Late-Night Munchies Done Right

There’s a cloud of beliefs floating around about the purported weight-gaining danger of snacking late at night. Accordingly, many diets command a strict “no eating after __pm” rule. But how many of us have actually seen legitimate research showing that eating after a certain hour causes weight gain? Are people who don’t eat past 7 actually thinner, or more importantly healthier? Well, the answer is yes and no, depending on how you look at it.

Your metabolism is slower at night due to decreased activity, but that doesn’t mean it stops entirely. You continue to burn calories all day and night, even as you sleep. The body needs energy 24/7 in order to breathe, keep the heart pumping, repair muscles, maintain brain function, and carry out the countless biochemical reactions constantly occurring within us. The difference is that during the day, metabolic processes are geared towards energy expenditure, while at night, there is a shift towards growth and repair. The takeaway here is that calories you consume at night don’t “count more” than calories you eat during the day, as long as you’re eating when physically hungry. In the evening, as our activities wind down and we aren’t moving around as much, we don’t require as much energy to keep us going, which is why lighter eating at night is so commonly recommended in diets and in general. Yet while we may not need as much food in the evening, cutting it out completely isn’t sensible either. Our bodies need to be supplied with energy anytime they’re running low, and not providing that energy (and in the right amount), whatever time it may be, can end up doing more harm than good.

Try to remember what happened when you kept to your diet’s “no food past 7pm” rule or ignored an evening hunger pang. You likely…

  • had a grumbling stomach that kept you from falling asleep.
  • woke up in the middle of the night with hunger pangs, or had a much larger breakfast than needed because you woke up ravenous.
  • funneled all your mental energy into resisting the urge to eat, leading to feelings of deprivation and frustration.
  • went back and forth in your head between “staying strong” or just giving in “this one time.”

Now think back to the times you did give in, what happened? Likely you over-ate or even binged.

So if modest evening indulgence is so harmless, why the bad rep? The problem isn’t eating late at night, it’s why you are eating late at night. We often turn to food at night because of

  • loneliness
  • fatigue
  • procrastination
  • boredom
  • wanting to reward ourselves at the end of a long day, etc.

The foods we crave when emotionally hungry are rich in sugar, fat, sodium, and highly processed, because these release “feel good” chemicals. In other words, when we’re emotionally hungry at night, a fruit or salad will not likely be calling our name!
Another reason might be that foods we crave in the evening are ones we often include on our mental “no-no” list. When we finally give in to them, sticking to just a small amount can be difficult. Once again, this is very likely to happen in the evening. These foods are often an “end of the day treat,” which can turn them into the long-desired and much-resisted forbidden fruit. Nevertheless, the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center recommends that “if you miss a healthful dinner at 6:00, there’s no reason not to eat it at 9:00!”

Another issue is concerned with how we eat at night. When you have a post-dinner snack, do you eat it in bed while reading a book or on the couch while watching a movie, or while simultaneously using your laptop? If you answered yes to any (or all) of these, then it is time to make some changes! Mindless eating leads to overeating. It is so important to eat mindfully and be aware of what you are putting in your mouth. Would you still want that bag of chips if you weren’t eating mindlessly out of the bag in front of the TV? Probably not!
The key is to understand that an association between night-eating and weight gain does not mean causation. That is, you cannot assume that eating at night causes weight gain, because it may just be the other way around, such that being overweight makes you more likely to pertain to the group of people who eat too much at night. According to the British Medical Journal, “People gain weight because they take in more calories overall than they burn up. Obese women were not just night eaters, they were also eating more meals, and taking in more calories makes you gain weight regardless of when calories are consumed.”

If you feel hungry at night, the most important thing to do first is assess your hunger. Is it physical, or non-physical? Let’s take a closer look at what this means, as it is important to discern being hungry in the evening and having a craving in the evening:

Stomach hunger is physical hunger. It can be detected by physical symptoms such as stomach tightening/grumbling, difficulty concentrating, and so on.

Brain hunger, the non-physical hunger also known as a craving, usually hits when you are seeking a distraction, and leads to wanting only particular foods (i.e. salty chips, sugary cookies, etc.).

To test whether you are having stomach or brain hunger, ask yourself if consuming a fruit will calm the hunger and satisfy you. If the answer is no, you are probably just having a craving!

Now that you’ve assessed your hunger type, the next step is to satisfy that hunger, not ignore or suppress it! Stomach hunger means you could physically benefit from food at this point. Make sure to eat a snack or meal without any distractions (like the TV or computer), eat something you enjoy, and stop when hunger symptoms fade. If you came to the conclusion that you were experiencing brain hunger, address your body’s true needs at this point.

  • Maybe you are tired, and it’s time for bed.
  • Or, you’ve been working for several hours and a hot shower to relax is what you need to unwind and take a break.
  • Perhaps you are so used to holding a bag of chips while watching TV that not munching on anything feels wrong, even if you had a satisfying dinner. Try replacing that habit with a soothing cup of tea.

If you find that you can’t resist the taste of something sweet after dinner even if you’re not physically hungry, it’s still completely okay to have some dessert! Just keep in mind that you don’t have a physiological need for energy at that point, so keep the portion small (just a few mindful bites of a rich dessert can be enough to quench a sweet tooth).

If you completely eliminated all the mental restrictions on “allowed times to eat” and “allowed foods to eat,” then the intense feeling of guilt that might otherwise accompany late-night eating goes away. This allows you to eat just the right amount and listen to your hunger signals instead of being distracted by thoughts like “oh my gosh I’m being so bad, I shouldn’t be eating right now.” Giving yourself this total freedom makes it much less likely that you’ll go nuts over dessert from breaking a rule or “giving in,” because there is no rule to be broken in the first place. If you’re still not convinced, here’s a glance at a few research studies looking at night-eating and its relation to weight:

  • A study published in 2012 in the Obesity Research journal followed 16 female monkeys who were put on a high-fat diet. Their eating patterns were closely observed for a year, and while most of the monkeys gained weight, those who ate most of their calories at night did not gain more weight than those who ate least of their calories at night. In other words, whether the monkeys ate high-fat food during the day or at night did not determine how much weight they gained.
  • A 2008 article in British Medical Journal commented on several studies debunking the myth:
    “In a study of 86 obese and 61 normal weight men, there were no differences in the timing of when they ate.”
    “In a study of over 2500 patients, eating at night was not associated with weight gain.”
    A study of 15 obese people found that the timing of meals did not change energy expenditure.

References

Allison, Kelly C., Jennifer D. Lundgren, John P. O’Reardon, Allan Geliebter, Marci E. Gluck, Piergiuseppe Vinai, James E. Mitchell et al. “Proposed diagnostic criteria for night eating syndrome.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 43, no. 3 (2010): 241-247.

“Weight Management.” Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. September 22, 2012. Accessed May 15, 2015.

Sullivan, Elinor L., Alejandro J. Daniels, Frank H. Koegler, and Judy L. Cameron. “Evidence in female rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) that nighttime caloric intake is not associated with weight gain.” Obesity research 13, no. 12 (2005): 2072-2080.

Vreeman, Rachel C., and Aaron E. Carroll. “Festive medical myths.” BMJ 337 (2008): a2769.

Andersson, I., and S. Rössner. “Meal patterns in obese and normal weight men: the ‘Gustaf’ study.” European journal of clinical nutrition 50, no. 10 (1996): 639-646.

Howarth, N. C., T. TK Huang, S. B. Roberts, B. H. Lin, and M. A. McCrory. “Eating patterns and dietary composition in relation to BMI in younger and older adults.” International Journal of Obesity 31, no. 4 (2007): 675-684.

Consoli, A., F. Capani, A. Del Ponte, T. Guagnano, M. Iezzi, G. Ditano, and S. Sensi. “[Effect of scheduling of meal times on the circadian rhythm of energy expenditure].” Bollettino della Societa italiana di biologia sperimentale 57, no. 23 (1981): 2322-2324.

“Does Eating Late at Night Make You Fat?” Medical Myth. Accessed May 24, 2015. http://www.uamshealth.com/latenighteating.