One thing many of my clients struggle with is eating at night after they have had dinner. They say things like:
- My husband and I watch TV and snack after dinner.
- I feel mildly hungry around 9-ish, and am afraid that if I don’t eat, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night starving and won’t be able to sleep.
- I crave sweets at night and sometimes binge on them.
I believe there are three main reasons why most people want to eat shortly after they’ve had a reasonable dinner:
- They were distracted when they ate dinner, whether with their phone, watching TV or whatever, and therefore did not experience the satisfaction of their meal.
- They are tired after a long day, and associate eating food with getting more energy.
- Their willpower is totally depleted after having used it up on a variety of other tasks throughout the day, so their resolve is low. This especially contributes to overeating if willpower was used to avoid eating earlier in the day, which is what happens when people go on diets.
There is a lot of controversy among the global medical research community about eating later in the evening. Not surprisingly, there are conflicting studies about whether it is better to eat more later in the day or earlier. Although I’m not sure what the writer of this article's credentials are, he makes some interesting points about why eating at night isn’t bad per se, and cites some research to back it up.
When I visited Spain a few years ago, no one ate dinner until at least 9 p.m. Yes, they had siesta mid-day, but that wasn’t necessarily following their largest meal. And you know what? I didn’t see many fat Spaniards. Europeans in general are known for eating a late dinner, and their obesity rates are lower than in the United States where people tend to eat earlier.
I’ve read studies that say eating a big breakfast will help you lose weight, and other studies that say if you eat most of your calories in the evening, you’ll lose more fat.
Everyone is different, so forget all of those rules and whatever the conventional wisdom du jour is. The important thing is to listen to your body and respond to its needs. Eating at night is only a problem if you eat when you aren’t hungry.
Here are some tips for dealing with eating at night if you want to lose weight and keep it off.
- Before eating, ask yourself whether you are truly hungry. Are you actually hungry or is something else causing you to want to eat? Maybe it’s your habit. Learning to understand this difference is crucial. If you aren’t hungry, don’t eat. Remember, the non-hunger urge to eat is just a thought in your brain. It will pass pretty quickly just like your other thoughts if you don’t respond to it. If you aren’t sure, think about whether you would feel satisfied with a salad or a cup of yogurt. If you only want to eat chips or cookies, it probably isn’t true hunger.
- If eating late at night interferes with your sleep, avoid it. Sleep deprivation is also associated with weight gain, so aim to get enough sleep and don’t let your sleep be disturbed by your digestion.
- Learn how to eat dinner without distractions. Call me naïve, but I still find it alarming that people actually eat their dinner while watching television! As I mentioned above, people who eat with distractions don’t taste much of their food and tend to overeat. Why, if you love food, would you want to distract yourself from what you're eating? And because you essentially don’t experience your meal, you won't be satisfied and may crave snacks afterwards. Learn how to eat without distractions, with the exception of whomever you are dining with. This means keeping your smart phone or other device away from where you eat, and not eating in front of the TV.
- Make a choice between eating and doing other activities. If you are actually hungry, and have to choose between food and your email or the TV, you’ll likely choose to eat. If you aren’t hungry, do something else and don’t eat. You'll be amazed at how much less you'll eat if you do this. And those extra pounds will start dropping off.
- If you eat because you’re bored, make a list of things you can do instead of eating. To break your night time eating habit, have other options that you enjoy. If you’re tired, rest!
- Don’t eat snacks or sweets out of the package. Unless there’s only one serving left or it's a single-serving size, put your snack in a bowl or on a plate. Notice how much food you gave yourself. You’ll eat less than when you get three-quarters of the way through that bag of tortilla chips and wonder where they all went!
- Brush your teeth one-half hour after dinner. Most of us are too lazy to brush again, and food tastes awful following toothpaste.
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I have been eating like the Spaniards. I only eat a lot at night since it’s going to be hours of sleeping and no eating. During the day, I eat less calories, but I do have some healthy snacks with me whenever I get hungry.