As an Edmonton Personal Trainer, one of the biggest hurdles I hear clients struggle with is late night snacking. After a long day at work or school, as we relax and unwind after dinner time, we find ourself with a sudden hunger, or cravings for something sweet/salty. These cravings lead us to having some less-than-ideal snacks before bed time and can potentially skew our calorie intake on a daily basis.  

So, if we are getting these cravings, what can we do about them? How can we reduce or eliminate the urge to snack late at night?

Before we go into what we can do about this, I do need to mention that eating at night does NOT mean that food will instantly turn to bodyfat. Our body doesn’t just “turn off” while we sleep, in fact most of our recovery happens when we are sleeping and it will continuously use calories even though we are at rest. In some cases (goal dependant), eating prior to bed can actually be a good thing. We just need to avoid foods that will affect our sleep (high sugar or caffeine) or overeating as it will cause bloating and discomfort as we sleep as well.

We are talking about reducing the cravings we have for less-than-ideal food choices, and how we can maneuver around these situations.

Staying Hydrated

For many of us, we do not drink enough water on a daily basis. Being chronically dehydrated can affect us many different ways, but one major way it does is by making us feel hungry. When we are dehydrated the body sends out a signal to remind us to drink water, however this signal is extremely similar in feeling as when we are hungry. We get light-headed, fatigued, and have a hard time concentrating when we are both hungry and thirsty. It can be tough for the body to distinguish between hunger and thirst.

I do recommend increasing water intake throughout the day so that you won’t be affecting your sleep quality by waking up throughout the night to use the washroom. However, if you’ve finished a satisfying meal and you’re still feeling hungry, I would recommend having a glass of water prior to going for seconds or going for an evening snack.

Eat Throughout the Day

Many of us have been told or heard that we need to eat 5 meals a day in order to be successful nutritionally and see change in our body. The fact is, it doesn’t really matter how many times per day we eat, as long as we are maintaining our calorie deficit (fat loss) or calorie surplus (muscle gain) over a period of time. Everyone is different, and some people have the time and freedom to eat throughout the day, whereas others have tight schedules and are unable to take time away from family/work to eat. I know personally it can be hard as an Edmonton Personal Trainer to get food in through a busy day working with clients!

The issue of late-night junk-food snacking typically comes down to being under-nourished prior to sleep. If we are in a large calorie deficit, or lacking certain nutrients the body is going to create signals to make us crave foods, especially when our circadian rhythm (body’s clock) starts to tell us it’s bed time. When this happens, we typically look for quick digesting, easy to absorb foods that are readily available… aka sugars. This leads us down the high-calorie junk-food train grabbing chips, ice cream, cookies, and other sugary snacks.

To combat this, we can increase the intake of food throughout the day to satisfy these cravings, and ensuring we are getting nutrients into our body so we aren’t scrambling for them later at night. Having well balanced snacks and meals through the day can curb these late-night cravings. Another alternative is to plan a night-time snack that will be in line with the goals we set out for ourselves.

Reducing Mindless Time

If we are use to snacking on foods while we are watching TV, sitting at a computer, or playing on a computer at night, we will instinctually go for snacks out of pure habit. It’s not that we are hungry, but we are bored and need some stimulation. If we are struggling with night time snacking, finding other activities to do can be a way to reduce this. We can go for a walk, do puzzles, read books, or work on a project we’ve been putting off for a while.

While portion control can work wonders, sometimes we need to remove distractions from the equation to determine if we really wanted the food, or if we were just bored. We can do this by literally taking the snack to an area where there are no other distractions (No TV or Cell Phone), and enjoying the snack there. In this circumstance we typically enjoy the food much more, give ourselves a chance to taste the food, and stop when we have satisfied the hunger we were feeling. This is a form of intuitive eating, and it can help us realize that we aren’t actually hungry, we were just mindlessly snacking.

Reduce Stress

After a stressful day at work, a long day at school, or a day where things just don’t go our way, we tend to lean on food for comfort. This is understandable, as it’s a biological response. When stress levels rise, so does our blood pressure, and our body uses more glycogen (sugars) to accommodate that. Food, especially high fat or sugar foods, also triggers the release of dopamine which makes us feel better, even if it’s temporarily.

So basically, when we are stressed, our body is looking for more fuel, and that fuel makes us feel better.

So how can we help this? Well, we can find ways to relieve stress in other ways. Journaling, communicating with those close to you, doing enjoyable activities, or being physically active can all help us reduce our stress from a bad day. These are typically the days we don’t want to go to the gym, but once we do, we will feel much better, and be less likely to binge at night.

Go To Bed

Sometimes the cure to this problem is simple. Go to sleep!

If we find ourselves with cravings for snacks that aren’t in line with our goals, and it’s later in the evening already, we can just go to sleep. As mentioned, a lot of times we are hungry out of boredom, so by going to bed earlier we reduce the opportunity to snack.

Not only that, but the lack of sleep can cause a disruption of our circadian rhythm and hormonal levels, including the hormones that regulate our satiety and stress levels. When we are sleep deprived, our ghrelin (appetite hormone) levels increase, and leaves us feeling hungrier. So, one of the best ways to combat excessive snacking, and get our appetite under control, is by getting more sleep.

In Conclusion…

Late night snacking can be a big cause of excessive calorie intake, but I want to reiterate that there is nothing wrong with having a late-night snack. We just want to be mindful with the types of foods we are taking in, the goals we are striving for, and how this snacking can affect us.

There are a lot of factors that can come into play, and if we are struggling with late night snacking these 5 points can certainly help with this. If we are continuing to struggle with our eating, we may want to dive deeper into our relationship with food by seeing a nutritionist or seeking out a food therapist.

Helping you live your best life,