You may have heard the old adage once or twice that you shouldn’t eat after 6:00pm. In fact, most people are familiar with the health tip that eating late at night can be associated with weight gain. However, other health professionals argue that it’s the dietary intake over the course of the whole day that influences weight gain, not when those calories are consumed. While the debate on late night eating and the association with weight gain remains strong, I am actually most interested in the reason why you are eating so late.
Reason #1: I’m hungry! I can’t seem to feel full in the evening.
When patients describe this scenario to me, I look at two things: Are they eating often enough in the daytime and are they eating enough protein? It is very common to observe excessive hunger in the evening when people skip meals, especially breakfast. I understand that many people are simply not hungry in the morning, but this is most often the result of training your body into a bad habit of not eating within your first few waking hours of the day. In fact, not feeling hungry after getting up may indicate you already have a faulty metabolism. If food does not sound good, it is perfectly healthy to consume a protein shake instead.
Skimping on protein intake can also alter hunger and satiety levels, particularly if protein-rich foods like eggs, meats, cheese, cottage cheese and Greek yogurt are being replaced by empty carb-rich foods such as cereals, white flours, crackers, chips, pretzels and granola bars throughout the day. Try to include a protein source with all your meals and preferably with your snack choices to achieve better feelings of fullness and more controlled blood sugars during the day and evening. High protein intake is a hot topic in research. Here is a great illustration depicting how protein can affect our late-night eating habits.
Solution: Don’t skip meals, and have a protein-rich breakfast every morning.
Reason #2: I’m bored.
Obviously, boredom is never a good reason to journey into the pantry. Many people eat out of boredom in the evenings from not having enough stimulation and others eat out of bad habit. Remember, we can condition our bodies into bad habits just as easily as we can form good health routines. If you feel a craving coming on, ask yourself, “Is my hunger above or below the neck?” Hunger above the neck merely means that eating something just sounds like a good idea. This may have been stimulated from seeing a food ad on TV or again, out of habit. If your hunger is below the neck and actually presents itself as tummy gurgles, then it is perfectly acceptable to have a late-night snack.
Ideally, you do not want to load up on carbs right before bedtime. A high-carb bedtime snack can cause a blood sugar and insulin spike during the middle of the night and actually disrupt your proper sleep cycle. Safer bedtime snacks include a good protein source along with a small carb source such as an apple with peanut butter or a handful of nuts mixed with some dry cereal or possibly some hard cheese slices with a handful of grapes.
Solution: Figure out if you are truly hungry or not first. If you do have some stomach pains, make sure you include a protein source with your evening snack.
Reason #3: My family has to eat late at night since we had a ball game out of town. What’s the best quick stop dinner?
Eating on the go is practically unavoidable in today’s society. Sometimes it’s unrealistic to avoid fast food altogether, but ordering from a window doesn’t mean your nutritious eating habits have to go out the other one! Remember to include a balance of proteins and healthy carbs with your evening order. Examples could be a burrito bowl from Chipotle, bowl of chili with a side salad from Wendy’s or a grilled chicken wrap or grinder. Try to limit fried menu items such as fried/breaded chicken, French fries, onion rings, hush puppies and added sugars from milkshakes, pies and cookies that are quickly available at most fast-food chains. Don’t forget that you can quickly stop at a grocery store and bring home rotisserie chicken, green beans and sweet potato salad for a quick sit-down dinner.