You’ve had a long day and now it’s time to sit down and relax. Chips or a chocolate bar can become an easy add-on.
Treats like these may seem like a good idea at the time, but making a habit out of nighttime eating can hurt your nutritional needs for the day. For many reasons, we crave late night snacks more than during the day.
You can avoid late night crunches and munches one simple way – by applying some structure.
Why may you likely eat more at night?
Samantha Bulgrin, a Marshfield Clinic registered dietitian, says one reason is because nighttime is less structured.
“People typically wake up and eat the same breakfast, go to work, have a scheduled lunch time and come home and eat dinner with their family,” Bulgrin said. “By the time night-time rolls around, that structure has disappeared and it takes some effort to remain truly conscious of what you’re eating.”
People tend to eat junk food at night, especially things that are salty or sweet. Bulgrin says it’s common for people to eat for reasons other than hunger.
“Emotional eating is prevalent,” she said. “We eat because we’re bored, we’re happy, we’re sad, we’re tired. It’s important to recognize what we are feeling, and to try to avoid eating when we’re not actually hungry.”
How can you curb the craving to snack?
Bulgrin says the best way to curb nighttime eating is by following a well-balanced diet during the day.
“You want to incorporate all of the food groups,” she said. “Especially protein and fiber because if you are lacking that early on in the day and not meeting your energy needs, that’s when you look for quick and easy food at night.”
There is an ongoing debate about whether there’s a certain time you should stop eating at night. Bulgrin says there is no set time, but if you eat later, your body has less time to burn and utilize calories.
“What works for people is usually schedule-based,” Bulgrin said. “Some people may set a goal where they do not eat past 8 p.m. If they work a different shift, they might not eat past 10 or 11 p.m. There is no magic rule for everyone.”
Also, keep in mind that it’s more difficult to digest a large volume of food if you lay down right after eating. This may cause some physical symptoms. Make sure to stay sitting upright so digestion has time to happen as it should.
If you have questions about what time you should eat or about other nutrition needs, ask your primary care provider to refer you to a dietitian.