By Maureen Tilley, PDt.
As a dietitian, I’m often asked whether it’s bad to eat late at night. I also frequently hear individuals say they eat well all day, but come evening have an urge to constantly pick and/or increased cravings for ‘junk’ foods. It can be quite distressing and often followed by self-shaming, ‘if only I had better willpower.’ The first step is to stop basing self-worth on this will-‘super’ power. More productively, focus on the understanding the root cause of your eating behaviours.
It’s important to distinguish between common nighttime snacking and more serious eating conditions that may require support from a healthcare professional.
Nighttime eating syndrome entails limited or skipped meals during the day especially breakfast, with consumption of 25 per cent or more of the day’s calories occurs after supper. This includes getting up through the night to eat (at least three times a week) in order to fall back asleep.
Binge eating disorder is characterized by excessive intake of food over a short time period that can occur at any time of the day. It is not the same as overeating, which most of us can relate to due to excessive hunger, good-tasting food or the temptation of food in front of us. During a binge, individuals feel a loss of control while eating. It’s often done in secrecy, may be followed with feelings of shame and/or feeling unwell due to excessive fullness.
If you or a loved one is struggling with disordered eating, it’s important to seek out support and guidance from a healthcare professional. More information can be found at the National Eating Disorder Information Centre website. The information in this article is better suited for nighttime snackers.
Close the kitchen?
A small ‘healthy’ bedtime snack is not a concern. It’s more ‘the what and the how much’ you choose that can pose a concern. There is some evidence showing that a small bedtime snack with protein may actually benefit in repairing muscles throughout the night. It may also help decrease excessive hunger the next day.
Certain conditions such as diabetes may require a snack before bed to keep your blood sugar level. Athletes may require larger meals/snacks in the evening in order to meet needs. What the heck is a balanced snack? Choosing healthier foods but also including variety with a protein source to help fill you up. Examples include small smoothies; hummus with whole grain crackers; fruit and yogurt; nut butter with banana; high-fibre cereal.
If you’re going to have a treat, avoid eating directly from the package. Try pairing them up with something that will also help fill you up like a carrot stick for every chip or a cut up apple alongside your dish of ice cream.
Meal timing and snacking
We’ve all heard mixed messages regarding whether foods consumed before bed turns to fat, whereas your body burns it during the day. Research is lacking but calorie distribution may make a difference. Several studies have looked at balanced calorie-specified diets with heavier breakfast (ex. 700 cal) and heavy/moderate lunch (ex. 500 cal) and lighter supper (ex. 200 cal) vs. lighter day meals and heavier meals in the evening. The results showed all groups had some benefit but higher calories during the day was most beneficial for weight management, triglycerides (fat in blood), insulin sensitivity (related to blood sugar control) and reported decreased hunger in the evening. Skipping breakfast all together has shown to be most detrimental.
It’s thought this is related to our circadian rhythm, a 24-hour sleep/wake cycle that works in accordance with light and darkness. It plays a role in regulating metabolism, processing and storage of fats and sugars and regulating hunger hormones. During the day it’s working a peak capacity and slows as the day progresses to prepare for rest time. Its efficiency is thrown off when we don’t eat and sleep according to our rhythm.
Until there’s more evidence, we can’t say if there’s benefit to these particular eating patterns. Regardless of calories, there are several healthy messages that may help manage night eating: eating regular meals and incorporating healthier balanced options. Do some trial and error to determine what works best for you and your health.
What’s driving your nighttime eating?
Poor sleep can be a factor. The average adult should sleep seven to nine hours a night with no less than six but not exceeding 10 hours. The impact of poor sleep goes beyond low energy and mood. It has multiple negative impacts on our overall health, including heart health, depression, diabetes, weight, and appetite. Obviously, the longer you’re awake, the more opportunity to snack at night. Research shows there’s also a physiological deregulation of hunger/fullness causing our body to seek out energy sources including cravings for empty calorie foods such as sugary and high-fat foods. It’s suspected to be due to increased production of ghrelin, our hunger hormone, and suppressing leptin, our satiety hormone. As the day goes on, fatigue increases, leading to excessive hunger at night.
Figure out what’s affecting your sleep. There are numerous possible factors including pain, stress, sleep apnea, habits, busy schedule, caffeine. Other times, you may be out of touch or ignoring those fatigue signals due to a habitual bedtime or losing track of time. Try to slowly retrain your bedtime by 15-minute increments each night, even when you’re not feeling tired. Just the action of shutting down and getting into bed can help you reset.
Look beyond your supper and assess your entire day. Your bowl of cornflakes at breakfast may not be enough. If you’re choosing low nutrient dense foods, missing meals, restricting/dieting or lacking balance, your nighttime eating and cravings may be related to true hunger. Try some trial and error with your eating patterns and food choices—try increasing/adding to your breakfast and lunch or adding healthier snacks throughout the day. Ensure variety and include protein at all meals and snacks (eggs, yogurt, meat, fish) along with fibre sources like fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
We can be impulsive eaters. Take a pause prior to making your choice: stop, non-judgmentally assess what you want and then make your decision. Whether you choose apple or chips, it’s likely to be a mindful and enjoyed choice.
Instead of trying to restrict and saying you can’t have something, give yourself 5-10 minutes to wait. Sometimes you may still proceed with your food choice and sometimes it may pass.
Start by checking in with your hunger/fullness before, during and after eating. It may be helpful to ask, “would an apple, or yogurt appeal to me right now?’ Most foods appeal when we’re hungry, otherwise there may be another driver.
Food can help to fill a void whether boredom, stress, anger, etc. Regardless of the reason, it’s fulfilling a purpose. Instead of using avoidance strategies such as brushing your teeth, or putting yourself to bed early, think about replacing with another nourishing activity or behaviour; making something, playing an instrument, a cup of your favourite tea.
Do the chips in the cupboard call your name? Sometimes we crave certain foods, other times we reach for them because we see them. Know your habits: maybe it’s best to keep those temptations out of the house or at least hide them away.
It can be very challenging if others in the household don’t want to change their snacking. Have a conversation with them in hopes of gaining their support. Perhaps they can choose foods you can pass up. If not, maybe you need to switch up your activities together.
Why we do what we do runs deep in our wiring so be patient and open to trying different strategies. Night eating is about improving, not perfection; sometimes we eat cookies but other times we do choose the fruit.
Maureen Tilley, PDt. is a registered dietitian and author of Hold the Salt! & Hold that Hidden Salt!