The after-dinner hours are a prime time for overeating, emotional eating, boredom eating, and eating out of tiredness. Not only do the calories add up, but preliminary research may also support the theory that our bodies actually put on more weight from calories eaten at night.
In a study that will be published in the October issue of Obesity magazine, researchers at Northwestern University studied two groups of mice who were fed identical high-fat diets. Half the mice were fed during the time when they would normally be sleeping (this was during daylight hours for mice, who are nocturnal) and half the mice were fed on their regular eating schedule. After six weeks, although both groups had consumed the same amount of calories and showed no difference in activity levels, the mice who ate when they normally would have been sleeping showed a 48 percent increase in body weight while those who had maintained their usual eating times increased their weight by only 20 percent. That’s a pretty big difference.
We don’t know precisely how these findings translate to humans, but this research is worth noting. Many women struggle with eating after dinner or after the rest of the household has gone to sleep. Many busy women tell me that the night hours are the only ones that feel like theirs. For some, the late night/early morning hours are the only time that they feel like they can stop taking care of everyone else and tend to themselves. The problem is, paying ourselves last doesn’t work. Too many women are forgoing sleep to try to squeeze in some “Me” time, and most are so tired at this point in their day that one of the primary ways they care for themselves is by resorting to food. Whether or not our bodies respond like the mice who should have been sleeping, it’s a vicious cycle. The truth is, until we feel entitled to allow ourselves the care we need, it is next-to-impossible to break free of emotional eating and overeating cycles.
Here are some tips to take control of night eating:
1. Identify what you are looking for. What’s triggering the eating? Are you lonely, bored, tired? In need of a reward? To break this habit, it’s essential that you start creating some to respond to these needs earlier in the day. You’ll be better off taking your time from the front end of the day. Start getting up 30 minutes earlier if you need to and adjust your bedtime accordingly. If you aren’t sure what role your night eating is playing, start by setting aside fifteen minutes a day to journal and pay attention to your thoughts.
2. Make time for you—when you have the energy to take it. I know you are busy, but time for yourself simply has to be on your agenda. It may be fifteen minutes a day or an afternoon a week, but make sure there is something that’s all-about-what-you-love-and-need written into your agenda. If all you get is late night eating, it’s going to be a lot harder to give up—and even if you do, you’re going to feel deprived.
3. Get on track with sleep. If you aren’t getting at least seven hours of sleep at night, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage with stress and weight loss. Without adequate sleep you’ll be hungrier, crave more carbs, and be physiologically predisposed to gain more weight. Make the pursuit of those seven uninterrupted hours a priority.
4. Change it up. Ingrained habits are powerful. If you are accustomed to noshing while you watch TV or browse the internet, you are going to be more successful curbing night eating if you choose a new activity—at least for the first week or so. Hang out in a different room, do something you don’t normally do, mix up your routine to minimize eating “on autopilot.”
5. Challenge yourself. Brush your teeth, put lotion on your hands, use your teeth whitening strips, work on a knitting project—anything that makes it more inconvenient to eat in the evening.
6. Reward your efforts. Remember that the initial stages of creating change can be the hardest. Plan a non-food reward for each milestone (each evening) you make positive changes.