I cannot even begin to tell you how many people I see who beat themselves up about eating late at night. “My biggest problem is I can’t seem to stop snacking at night,” or, “I try not to eat after 7:00 p.m.” are two of the most common comments I hear.
To be perfectly honest with you, there isn’t enough research to come to a reliable, irrefutable answer to this question. If you think about it, weight loss or gain generally comes down to calorie intake, so if you stop eating at a certain time in the evening, it may lead to weight loss simply because you’re taking in fewer calories for the day. (Note: It’s actually not as simple as calories in versus calories out, but that’s a blog post for another time!)
So, the few research studies that have been done lean more toward the idea that eating late at night, in and of itself, is not a direct cause of obesity or weight gain. If this is the case, where does this misconception come from?
Here’s my take on it: There are many other lifestyle habits and choices that often go hand-in-hand with eating late at night and may contribute to weight gain. So, what are these and what can we do to change them?
Problem: Late at night, you are more likely to choose ultra-processed snack foods that are quick, easy and require no effort to prepare. Think chocolate, chips, cookies… all the faves!
Solution: These foods are obviously not nutrient-dense, which means you’ll never feel full or satisfied—no matter how much you eat! This is why it’s so easy to polish off an entire bag of chips and still be roaming the pantry for something else. If you are going to eat at night, choose a healthier option. The trick is to pair a source of protein with a source of carbohydrate (ideally with some fibre). This might be a sliced apple with peanut butter or a slice of whole-grain toast with cottage cheese. These foods have essential nutrients that will help fill you up and prevent you from continuously going back to the fridge or snack drawer.
Problem: You may be eating for a reason other than hunger, like boredom or stress.
Solution: Try to ask yourself why before grabbing a snack. Become aware of the true reason behind your nighttime eating. If you know it’s because you’re bored or stressed, what else, other than food, can you use as a distraction?
Problem: You might not be fueling yourself adequately during the day, so you’re overcompensating at night.
Solution: Try to make time to eat at least three balanced meals throughout the day. Don’t allow yourself to go more than six hours between meals (aside from dinner to breakfast the next morning!). You will be pleasantly surprised how diminished the urge to eat after dinner is.
Problem: You may be dehydrated.
Solution: Dehydration is masked by feelings of hunger. On average, individuals should drink about two litres of water per day to prevent dehydration. This can vary from person to person and can be more specifically calculated based on weight, activity level, and medical history. If you’re interested in learning more about your hydration needs, I’m always here to help!
Problem: You might be trying to keep yourself awake.
Solution: Very simple solution here. Food gives us energy, so if you’re tired, go to sleep. Don’t try to stay awake by fueling your body with unnecessary calories just so you can watch an extra episode of your favourite show.
And there you have it! Do not be scared to eat at night when you are hungry, just remember to give that little extra thought to the choices you make. Eating a small snack may actually help you sleep better if you are truly hungry!