Have you ever had the experience of waking up “hung over” because you ate too much the night before? Are you wondering why you have those desperate urges to forage in the fridge?
A lot of us are prone to it — the late night eating experience! Is it good for you or bad for you? Is it detrimental to your health, or just a normal part of satisfying your appetite?
I enjoy an occasional after-dinner sweet. When you do it right, there’s nothing wrong with it. Instead of the late-night binges, however, you can enjoy the bliss of occasional after-dinner treats. Here's what you need to know about your nighttime hunger, and how to handle it.
The Inside Scoop on Late-Night Eating
Is late-night eating really that bad? For various reasons, the answer is yes, pretty much. Studies show that people who avoid nighttime eating usually have healthier and slimmer bodies. Here’s why.
- Your digestive system needs time to rest. Watch what you eat, and when you eat. Both are important — your choice of food and the time you eat it. Every human is equipped with an internal clock — our circadian rhythms — signaling when to eat, and when to sleep. When we eat less during the day, we have the urge to eat more at night. Doing so can throw off a healthy circadian rhythm. Daytime eating is best, since our intestines, livers, and muscles are operating at peak efficiency. However, late-night eating forces the digestive system to work when it wants to be resting.
- Eating before sleeping is a counterproductive cycle. When you pack extra carbs and sugars in your body before bed, you aren’t able to sleep as well. Sleeplessness causes fatigue problems the next day. When you’re tired, you may be tempted to eat even more, leading to a sad spiral of eating too much, sleeping less, and so on.
- Your body needs sleep, not food. The hormone melatonin is what helps you sleep at night. This sleep hormone is connected to the appetite-suppressing hormone known as leptin. Melatonin production goes down when you sleep less, leading to cases of chronic insomnia. At the same time, leptin production goes down in conjunction with melatonin decrease. With your appetite-blocking hormone gone, your body demands more food. More food at night means later nights, less leptin, and more fatigue, resulting in an unhealthy cycle that often produces weight gain.
Just about every study on late-night eating has come to the same conclusion: Late night eating is linked to weight gain. Thankfully, there are ways to avoid the late-night hunger pangs, and a healthy way to enjoy after-dinner snacks.
Why We Love Late-Night Eating, and What to Do about It
For many of us, late night seems to be when the hunger really kicks in. Why is it so hard to stay out of the fridge or pantry?
It’s not all your fault. When your job is demanding, your day is long, and your nerves are frayed, food can seem comforting. One of the quickest ways to numb the nerves is to feed our bodies. Whether it’s boredom, fatigue, mild depression, or just wanting to relax, food seems to hit the spot.
There are some great ways to stave off late-night cravings. Here are four suggestions.
- Don’t skip breakfast. Starting your day off right with a solid breakfast will help to end your day right, too. A regular pattern of eating throughout the day will bring your body to the right conclusion when it’s finally time to stop and sleep.
- Fill up on fiber and protein during the day. Late-night tummy grumbles may be a sign that your body wants more fiber and protein. Fiber slows the passage of food in your body, helping you feel fuller longer. Eating a protein-healthy dinner keeps your blood sugar at optimal levels, staving off the sinking energy syndrome.
- Relax without food. We eat, because we think it will relax us. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. In order to relax, a few minutes of intentional or meditative breathing can be far more helpful. Try the BLT — the Breathe Listen Technique: 1) Slowly breathe in while counting to three. 2) Hold your breath for three, and identify one sound around you. 3) Gently exhale for three seconds. Repeat this process four or five times. The process takes only a minute or two, but creates relaxation that lasts for hours, and prepare your body for sleeping (not feasting).
- Sleep more. Your sleep, your diet, and your hormones are involved in a delicate dance. You might throw off the dance by eating too much at night. The best way to eat less at night is to sleep more at night.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. A body accustomed to regular late-night eating will take a while to turn the corner. There’s good news, though. Not every late night needs to be a battle against the appetite.
How to Love Your After Supper Sweets, and Have Zero Guilt
Life isn’t all about hard-nosed denial. Now and then you need to let go, to enjoy life, and to savor some delectable after-dinner treat.
When it comes to late-night snacking, think historically, not calorically. Rather than count the calories in that handful of chips, think about what happens when you eat a handful. Do you go for another handful? Does that single spoonful of ice cream turn into a three-spoonful, or a four-spoonful, or a pint-size helping?
You don’t need to beat yourself up about it. Instead, you can find savory replacements. One of the best things I’ve found to add comforting relaxation to my evenings is a cup of hot decaf tea. Slowly sipping freshly brewed tea, especially with chamomile or jasmine, calms the nerves and cures the appetite. Or try a single piece of hard candy, which is low in calories and long in flavor. After dinner is a great time for a small helping of fresh berries enhanced with a dollop of Greek yogurt.
Remember, if you reward yourself shortly after dinner, you’ll be less likely to dive into the pantry later at night.
Once or twice a week, give yourself permission to indulge in a decadent desert. A luxurious bite of chocolate cake now and then will feel good, and help you stick to your goals the rest of the week.
If you want to really enjoy your life and feel better, this is the way to go. Keep it fun and light at night, but give yourself a break now and then. You’ll discover a better-rested, slimmer, and healthier body when you successfully deal with late-night snacking.