Midnight snacking isn’t as harmless (or fun) as it looks in the movies. In fact, it can lead to long-term health problems. If you’re plagued by midnight munchies, we’ve got the cure.
Occasionally raiding the fridge at 3 am might not seem like a big deal. After all, that casserole you made the other night was outstanding, and there’s a slice of leftover cheesecake waiting with your name on it. But if the odd twilight indulgence turns into a regular date with Ms. Fridge or you suspect that your late-night cravings are related to a bigger issue with food, you should take a step back and have a serious look at your snacking habit.
According to a 2017 scientific statement from the American Heart Association, an irregular eating pattern (which can include skipping meals and night-time snacking) can up your risk of obesity, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance.
Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found that night eating increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, even in those at a healthy body weight. A study conducted on mice from the University of California also found that night eating can affect cognitive function and have a negative impact on your memory. But that doesn’t mean we should all stop eating at 7 pm every evening. For some people, night nibbling is necessary, and some research shows that it’s not always bad for you.
Researchers at Florida State University found that a small, nutrient-dense night-time snack of 150 calories or less doesn’t have a negative impact on a person’s health. Plus, they point out that some people need an evening snack, such as those with type 1 diabetes, who require small, regular meals throughout their waking hours.
“If you work a longer day and then hit the gym, by the time you get home, you could be eating dinner at 9 or 10 pm, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Vanessa Perrone, a registered dietitian in Montreal. There’s a distinction to be made between enjoying a bedtime snack or late dinner and raiding the fridge at 3am, though.
“The body isn’t designed to eat late at night,” says Perrone. Unless you’re working night shifts, there’s no reason to be eating in the wee hours. And even if you have to do it and you’re eating a balanced, nutritious meal, it’s not ideal for your health, she says.
"The body isn’t designed to eat late at night"
“We know from studies on shift workers that the body has a harder time managing blood sugar levels after a meal in the middle of the night,” she says. If it’s not a demanding work schedule that has you up and eating at odd hours, you should ask yourself why you’re rummaging through the fridge. Are you trying to avoid your feelings?
“People might be seeking relief, reward or escape from some kind of dysfunctional emotional response,” says Mike Davies, a clinical counsellor at Health Upwardly Mobile in Calgary who works with addiction and disordered eating. “They think, I’ll put something in my mouth and it will change my mood,” he says. And it’s no wonder that emotionally driven night-time cravings tend to be for carrot cake instead of kale salad. “I don’t think anyone is reaching for a celery stick in the middle of the night,” says Davies. When people have cravings, they’re often for certain types of food because they make them feel good.
“Carbs are calming, and sugar produces a dopamine spike,” says Davies. That high after a sweet treat is what a lot of people turn to in the dark of night because it has a strong effect on how we feel. “Sugar should actually be classified as a stimulant because it metabolises in the body the same way as cocaine,” he says. Cravings are also often associated with memories that the person wants to relive or avoid.
"Carbs are calming, and sugar produces a dopamine spike"
Clearly, if you find yourself nocturnally nibbling on a slab of chocolate cake on the regular, it’s not going to be good for your waistline or health. But beyond what you’re snacking on and how much, night eating is considered problematic when it’s done in the absence of physical hunger—even if you really are reaching for veggie sticks. That’s because you’re ignoring your natural satiety cues, which can put you out of touch with your body’s needs and lead to overeating and other problematic food habits in the future.
If you think you might have a problem with the midnight munchies, read on for some strategies to help you get your late-night cravings under control…
Have eggs for breakfast
Photo by Joseph Gonzalez
Believe it or not, your night eating habits begin at breakfast. In a 2013 study on late-adolescent girls from the University of Missouri, a high-protein breakfast of eggs and beef (35 grams of protein) was found to reduce snacking later in the day, compared to cold-cereal eaters (who consumed just 13 grams of protein).
“You might think it’s so many hours away, but breakfast can really have an impact,” says Perrone. “If your first meal of the day is sufficient in healthy fats and protein to get your blood sugar regulated, that really avoids any peaks and valleys throughout the day that can turn into sugar cravings in the evening,” she says.
Don't skip carbs at dinner
Photo by Ella Olsson
Ideally, you want to make sure that your dinner is balanced with vegetables, protein, healthy fats and, yes, carbs, says Perrone. “Women, in particular, will skip carbs at dinner, but it’s the one thing that they will load up on later,” she says.
She recommends quinoa, black rice, farro, sweet potato and butternut squash for nutritious and satiating hits of carbohydrates that are easy to work into your favourite dinner dishes.
Another bonus to carbs at dinner: They may actually help you snooze better at bedtime. “Carbs help promote sleep, so dinner is a great time for complex carbs,” says Perrone.
Quit "closing the kitchen"
Photo by Rachael Gorjestani
Your body doesn’t magically know it’s 8pm and, therefore, your self-imposed snacking cut-off time. It’s possible that you had a particularly active day or that your grab-and-go lunch wasn’t nourishing enough and you need a bit of extra food in the evening.
Bottom line: Listen to your body. If you’re truly hungry, you should eat, says Perrone. To fill you up and keep you going through the night, she suggests sliced pear with a handful of nuts or flatbread with almond butter.
Resist Neflix binges
Photo by Phillip Goldsberry
Marathon munching during a TV binge session is a classic scenario for mindless eating. But for someone who is struggling with disordered eating, it might not be totally “mindless,” says Davies.
Night snacking in front of the TV can be thinly veiled self-punishment, brought on by feelings of shame or guilt. “There’s all the other internal stuff going on, like ‘I have so much shame that I don’t care anymore’ or ‘I deserve to hurt or suffer because I don’t have worth or value,’” he says.
These feelings can fuel a junk food binge, and movie night can act as a cover. Late night TV can still be an excuse to nibble, even for people who aren’t dealing with serious food issues. It’s easy to snack up a storm when you’re distracted by the new season of Stranger Things, and this can seem harmless, especially if you’re reaching for the more nutritious snack option.
“In the evening, people will often crave chips but opt for popcorn instead because it’s a healthier choice, but you should stop and look at this habit if you aren’t hungry in the first place,” says Perrone. “Over time, it can devolve and you can really start to get out of touch with what your body is telling you.”
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