How to Stop LATE Night Eating: 9 Strategies for Reducing Nighttime Eating

Jul 8, 20248 min
Author's Profile picture
Mave
Clinical Psychologist
girl eating a late night snack

Many of us find ourselves reaching for snacks during late hours, whether it's to unwind with a favourite TV show or as a habitual response to stress. Learning how to manage late-night eating habits effectively is crucial for maintaining overall health and well-being, especially after a long day when relaxation and cravings intersect. 

This article explores practical strategies to curb nighttime cravings, differentiate between occasional snacking and more serious conditions like Night Eating Syndrome (NES), and foster healthier nighttime routines. By understanding the impact of late-night eating on our health and implementing mindful eating practices, we can strike a balance between enjoyment and wellness in our evening habits.

Introduction

You have had a busy day, and now, as night falls, you decide to stay up a little longer. Maybe you are catching up with a long-distance friend, or perhaps you just want to watch your comfort show at 10 pm. Naturally, hunger starts to creep in, and the idea of a midnight snack becomes irresistible. You reach for one of the two chocolate bars you have, and with a satisfying crunch, you savour every bite. Time passes, and the urge to enjoy the second chocolate bar grows stronger. 

That is the thing about late night hunger or midnight snacking – it is so convenient and often comes in easy-to-grab packages. We have all had those nights where a late-night treat brings immense pleasure or maybe a guilty pleasure. However, if it happens frequently, it may be important to pay attention to when you should stop eating at night.

Understanding Nighttime Eating

Nighttime eating refers to the habit of consuming food late in the evening or during the night, often outside of regular meal times. Some people eat a lot in the evening, consuming at least 25% of their daily calories after dinner. They also wake up at least twice a week to eat. This is termed as Night Eating Syndrome. It affects about 1.5% of people in the US. 

Difference between Nighttime Eating and Night Eating Syndrome

Normal Nighttime Snacking involves the occasional eating of small snacks or light foods before bedtime. It's typically driven by hunger or habit, involving small amounts of food that do not significantly disrupt sleep patterns. This behaviour is generally not compulsive and does not typically cause emotional distress or guilt.

Night Eating Syndrome (NES), on the other hand, is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating during the nighttime. Individuals with NES often consume large amounts of food after dinner or wake up to eat during the night. This behaviour is not driven by hunger but rather by an urge to eat during the night. NES is associated with disrupted sleep patterns, such as insomnia, and individuals may experience a reduced appetite in the morning. Emotional components like guilt or shame related to nighttime eating episodes are common in NES.

The Science Behind Late-Night Eating

Late-night snacking can be tempting, but science suggests it might not be the best idea for our health. Here's a look at the hormonal and circadian rhythm factors at play:

Hormonal Changes: Leptin and Ghrelin are two hormones that act like a seesaw, regulating hunger and fullness. Leptin, produced by fat cells, signals satiety (feeling full). Ghrelin, made in the stomach, stimulates hunger. Studies show that late-night eating disrupts this balance. Late meals can lead to lower leptin levels throughout the day, making you feel hungrier in general, and potentially increasing cravings at night.

Circadian Rhythm: Our bodies have a natural internal clock known as the circadian rhythm. This cycle regulates various functions, including sleep, hormone release, and digestion. Late-night eating throws this rhythm off balance. When we eat at night, especially close to bedtime, it disrupts the normal pattern of leptin and ghrelin release, potentially leading to increased cravings and decreased feelings of fullness at night.

Why Do I Want to Snack So Much at LATE Night?

Late-night snacking is a common habit that many people struggle with, often finding themselves reaching for food well after dinner. One may wonder, why am I so hungry late at night? Let us explore the possible reasons:

Habitual Behaviours

For many people, activities like watching TV or reading before bed become linked with eating. Over time, our brains associate these activities with food consumption, creating a habit where we automatically reach for snacks even if we're not genuinely hungry. This conditioned response can make late-night snacking feel like a natural part of winding down or relaxing, regardless of whether our body actually needs more food. 

Disordered Eating

Another reason behind late night hunger may be due to disordered eating patterns. This involves Night Eating Syndrome (NES) and also Binge Eating Disorder.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) involves frequently eating large amounts of food in a short time. Unlike Night Eating Syndrome (NES), which happens mainly at night, BED can happen at any time of day. People with BED feel like they can not control their eating during these episodes. This can lead to feelings of guilt, distress, or embarrassment. BED is often linked to emotional triggers. Treatment usually includes psychological help to address the causes and behaviours of binge eating.

Sleep Issues 

Sleep issues can significantly impact our eating habits and overall health. When we don't get enough sleep, our body's signals can become mixed up. We might feel exhausted and reach for a snack to boost our energy quickly, even though what we truly need is rest.

Lack of sleep disrupts leptin and ghrelin (the hunger and fullness hormones) just like late-night eating does. This can lead to increased cravings throughout the day and night.

Skipping Meals

Skipping meals during the day can lead to increased nighttime eating as our bodies attempt to compensate for the missed calories. When we deprive ourselves of food throughout the day, our hunger can become more intense by evening, prompting us to consume larger portions or less healthy options. This pattern not only disrupts our natural hunger cues but also makes it harder to maintain a balanced diet and stable energy levels.

Stress and Anxiety 

Stress and anxiety can lead to emotional eating, where food becomes a source of comfort. Sugary or fatty snacks can momentarily alleviate stress by triggering pleasure centres in the brain, but they can also disrupt sleep patterns and contribute to weight gain over time. 

The Effects of Eating at LATE Night

Weight Gain: 

Late night eating can lead to weight gain because your body is more likely to store calories as fat instead of burning them for energy. This is because our metabolism slows down at night, and the extra calories are not used up as efficiently.

Increased Health Risks: 

Regularly eating late in the evening can increase the risk of various health problems. It can lead to higher blood sugar levels, which may raise the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Additionally, it can cause digestive issues, such as acid reflux, and contribute to heart disease over time.

Reduced Well-being: 

Late night eating can also affect your overall well-being. It can disrupt your sleep, making it harder for you to get a good night's rest. Poor sleep can make you feel tired and less energetic during the day, affecting your mood and overall quality of life.

In the long term, late night eating can negatively impact your metabolic health. This can lead to issues such as weight gain, insulin resistance, and an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Poor metabolic health is closely linked to poor sleep, creating a vicious cycle that further degrades overall health. Additionally, both poor metabolic health and inadequate sleep are associated with an increased risk of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Therefore, maintaining a healthy eating schedule is crucial for overall well-being, affecting both physical and mental health.

Occasional snacking is not a problem, but frequent nighttime eating can have a lasting impact on our health. 

9 Strategies for Reducing Nighttime Eating 

Identify Habits & Triggers: 

First things first, let's figure out what makes us want to snack late at night. Is it boredom while watching TV? Maybe it's stress after a long day. Once we know what causes our cravings, we can find better ways to cope, like picking up a hobby or talking to a friend instead.

Develop Healthy Routines: 

Create a bedtime routine that doesn't include eating. You can take a warm bath, read a good book, or do some gentle stretches. These activities help signal to our bodies that it's time to relax and prepare for sleep, not time to eat.

Plan Meals & Snacks:

Make sure to eat balanced meals during the day and include healthy snacks. This way, we keep our hunger in check and are less likely to reach for unhealthy options late at night. Regular eating can prevent those sudden urges to snack.

Manage Stress & Emotions:

Stress less, snack less! Feeling overwhelmed? Take a deep breath! When stress overwhelms us, our bodies often seek comfort through snacking, especially on sugary or fatty foods. Stress triggers cortisol (a stress hormone) release, which boosts appetite. Instead of reaching for snacks, try calming techniques like meditation or light yoga. Relaxation exercises quiet the mind, reducing stress and cravings. Yoga combines movement with deep breathing, relaxing both body and mind. Deep breathing, calming music, or mindfulness also help manage stress, curb late-night cravings, and improve overall well-being.

Hydration:

To avoid mistaking a dry throat for a rumbling tummy, keep a water bottle by your side throughout the evening. Sipping on water regularly will keep you hydrated and help curb those false hunger pangs that might otherwise lead to unnecessary snacking. Plus, staying hydrated is just good for our overall health!

Mindful Eating: 

If we do decide to have a snack, let's be mindful about it. Sit down, focus on the flavours and textures, and savour each bite. This helps us feel satisfied with less food. The mindful approach helps us feel more satisfied with less food, preventing us from overdoing it and potentially derailing our sleep.  It also helps us appreciate the food we’re eating, creating a more positive relationship with food.

Reduce Temptation: 

Out of sight, out of mind! Let us keep tempting snacks like chips and cookies out of the house, or store them in inconvenient places. Instead, stock the fridge with easy-to-grab, healthy all-stars. Fresh fruits and veggies are perfect for satisfying nighttime cravings. Pre-cut some veggies and store them with low-fat hummus for a delicious and nutritious dip. This way, when those late-night munchies hit, we'll have healthy options readily available to curb the cravings without derailing our goals.

Behavioural Cues: 

Our rumbling stomach is a clear sign we need food, but it is not the only clue. Listen closely! Is it a steady emptiness or a sudden urge for something specific, like chips or ice cream? True hunger builds gradually, with potential dips in energy or mild shakiness. Cravings, on the other hand, hit us fast and often target specific flavours.  If our stomach is not sending strong signals and the craving seems specific, it's probably best to hold off on the snack.

Conclusion

Nighttime can be a tricky time for eating. While there's no single "stop eating" time that works for everyone, establishing a routine is key. Ideally, give your body 2-3 hours to digest before bed to ensure a restful sleep. But listen to your body!  Some nights you might be genuinely hungry later, and that's okay. Keep the bigger picture in mind - it is about building healthy habits. Focus on balanced meals throughout the day and don't stress about a specific cut-off time for nighttime eating. We are all on this journey together, and finding what works for you is most important. And if there are challenges, seek support from a professional. 

References

Allison KC, Tarves EP. Treatment of night eating syndrome (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222864/). Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2011;34(4):785-796. Accessed 9/24/2021

Iqbal A, Rehman A. Binge eating disorder. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2022.

Manoogian, E. C., Chaix, A., & Panda, S. (2019). When to eat: The importance of eating patterns in health and disease. Journal of Biological Rhythms, 34(6), 579-589. 

STUNKARD AJ, GRACE WJ, WOLFF HG. The night-eating syndrome; a pattern of food intake among certain obese patients. Am J Med. 1955 Jul;19(1):78-86. [PubMed]

Author's Profile picture
Mave
Clinical Psychologist
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