Late night snacking and unconscious ‘grazing’ night after night in front of the TV can cause the pounds to quickly pile on. Some foods may even prevent high quality sleep and keep you wide-eyed into the early hours. So, when hunger strikes late at night what can you do? It’s time to evaluate some of the best and worst foods to satisfy your night-time cravings.
Are You REALLY Hungry?
The first question you must ask yourself before eating late at night: Are you really hungry? Are you really hungry for food? Often we use food to stuff down (push away) unwanted emotions such as loneliness, boredom, sadness or a lack of satisfaction with life. When we use food for comfort we typically overeat as we were not hungry in the first place (so the body is confused).
The physical sensation of an empty stomach (occurring 2-3 hours after eating) is often mistaken for hunger – this means your stomach has emptied the last meal, it doesn’t need another one. Real hunger is rarely experienced nowadays; you might feel it after a period of fasting but not a few hours after your last meal.
What we often want is love; we are hungry for kindness, affection, connection and human contact. Find ways to satisfy your emotional hungers and learn to accept and express emotions instead of suppressing them. Supporting yourself with self-love will fill the emotional gap. How can you love, pamper or entertain yourself at night when your emotions come to the surface?
Sleep Satisfaction is Important
Harvard University’s Sleep Study has revealed how vitally important sleep is for our mental and physical wellbeing. If you are a late night snacker you could be jeopardizing more than your diet. Sleep has many profound benefits:
- Memory consolidation – information gathered during the day gets filed into long term memory at night when we sleep, this ensures we retain and learn instead of simply forgetting new information!
- Metabolic control –sleep deprivation affects the hormones which control metabolism and fat storage. Amazingly just missing a few hours of sleep can: disturb insulin sensitivity (fat storing hormone); raise cortisol levels (stress hormone promoting fat storage); increase ghrelin (controls appetite); decrease leptin (controls fullness). All of these hormonal disturbances lead to an increased appetite and weight gain.
- Safe living – many accidents on the road and other mistakes are attributed to a lack of sleep. We cannot make quick and clear decisions when sleep deprived due to depleted levels of neurotransmitters. Lapses in concentration due to tiredness can have fatal consequences.
- Moodiness – without sleep our mood suffers and we experience more impatience, irritability, anxiety and a general lack of concentration and emotional clarity. If you are feeling grumpy during the day consider the quality of your sleep.
- Immune Function – the immune system uses the time we sleep to perform essential repairs and regular maintenance. Many diseases, including cancers, can be prevented if the immune system has the nutrients and time to keep you healthy.
Television Makes You Fat
Night time is a danger zone for many dieters and mindless eating in front of the TV is one of the worst offences. Research has categorically and repeatedly shown a very clear link between watching TV and obesity. The extensive advertising of food combined with habitual patterns of munching while watching could ruin your weight loss attempts.
The passive and addictive habit of consuming sound and vision in this effortless format leads to a general numbing of the mind. Although mentally occupied the mind is actually bored, this is why you turn to food to provide some sort of stimulation and temporary high.
If you want to give your weight loss a boost, find some alternative ways to spend your evenings. Any kind of movement based activity, especially something gentle like walking, can help you unwind, lose weight and keep you out of the TV danger zone. Crafting, reading, learning, talking, or anything really, is better than TV!
TV’s negative messages about how we should think and look also impact your confidence and self-belief. TV advertising is designed to belittle and ‘prime’ us: making us items being promoted or something similar. Late night viewing is often dedicated to immediate food gratification – you might manage to ignore the suggestion to order a pizza, but find yourself diving into your fridge or freezer!
Consider rationalizing your viewing and consume some form of positive media instead. The internet is full of motivational, optimistic, educational and inspirational sources of entertainment that won’t try and persuade you to pig out! You could also pick up a book about self empowerment, meal planning, healthy eating, etc.
Foods to Avoid
From a weight loss perspective the worst foods to eat at night are those containing carbohydrates and specifically sugars. They cause a release of insulin which turns everything you have just eaten into fat – since you don’t move much at night and can’t burn the excess energy off.
The rapid peak and then drop of insulin stimulates more hunger – meaning you feel hungry again when in bed or even wake up during the night wanting food. This disrupts sleep patterns and can quickly get you into bad habits. Sugar is highly addictive, especially if you are feeling stressed, and it can be very difficult to stop eating once you have started.
From a sleep perspective here is what you need to avoid and why:
- Increase body temperature and stimulate the body – conflicting with the natural cool down and sleep cycle
- Can trigger heartburn preventing comfortable rest and a good night’s sleep
- Asian foods often naturally contain glutamate which excites parts of the brain making you feel alert
- Tabasco and mustard reduce deep sleep and increase time spent awake when trying to sleep
- Naturally contains caffeine which will keep you awake, or even buzzing if you have a lot
- Contains theobromine which, like caffeine, also elevates your energy levels
- Can induce nightmares and violent dreams
- The bigger the meal the longer it takes to digest preventing relaxation and sleep
- Greasy foods line your stomach making you feel uncomfortable and full for a long time
- When your body is digesting while you sleep it can’t concentrate on keeping you healthy
Soda and energy drinks
- Usually contain sugar or artificial sweeteners (which stimulate the brain, cause weight gain and are toxic)
- Often contain caffeine, other stimulants or colorings which make you feel too alert to sleep
- Energy drinks can prevent sleep even when you are physically exhausted (even sugar free herbal ones)
- Impacts sleep quality – even if it helps you fall asleep you are less likely to stay asleep or get deep sleep
- More likely to snore due to relaxation in the throat muscles – which can wake yourself and others
- Contains a lot of carbohydrates and depending on the drink other stimulants too
Some Safer Snacks
If you really are hungry then eat a small light snack. There are a few foods which are ‘safer’ and will impact your sleep and weight loss less, here are some ideas:
- Unsweet fruits such as berries, apple, grapefruit or melon with some delicious coconut cream
- Nut butter or hummus spread over vegetable slices/sticks
- Small amount of protein from meat, fish, egg or dairy plus a little bit of salad
- Homemade fruit ice cream (keep over-ripe bananas in the freezer then just chuck them in a blender!)
- Frozen cherries (contain sleep inducing melanin) blended with chia or flax seeds into a smoothie or ice-cream
- Cooked or grated apple with cinnamon and nuts or seeds (plus some coconut cream for extra decadence)
- Flax crackers, sweet potato chips or kale chips (these are crisps really!)
- Herbal teas (especially those designed to help you relax or sleep) with a little honey if needed
- Non-dairy milk drink (soy, hemp, oat or nut milk) with ginger and a little honey (or other flavors you like)
Make a plan!
Now you understand the importance of sleep and the impact of late night snacking you can make a plan! Begin by asking yourself 3 simple questions:
- What are my late night eating habits?
- What are my triggers?
- What are my alternatives?
Making a plan will prevent you entering the danger zone and disturbing your sleep and damaging your hard work. Find what works for you, write it down and stick to it. You can learn to energize yourself with sleep and fill yourself with love, not food.