Snacking after dinner is one of the most difficult behaviors to change for many people looking improve their eating habits. Except for those who require a bedtime snack for medical reasons, most people eat more than enough calories at their dinner meal to carry them through until breakfast.
It is estimated that 20 to 30 percent of Americans do not eat breakfast, but many indulge in late night snacking. This is problematic for two reasons. First, according to the American Heart Association, the body metabolizes calories differently throughout the day, and it’s more efficient at doing so earlier in the day. This is why eating earlier in the day is associated with lower obesity rates and inflammation versus late night eating. Secondly, people generally tend to crave foods that are sweet or salty (or both). Chips and sweets tend to lead to empty calorie choices.
The best way to stop late night snacking is to start early! In the morning, that is. Eating regular meals—including breakfast—is important. Breakfast allows you to provide your body vital nutrients and fluids, since most of us wake up slightly dehydrated. A breakfast of coffee just doesn’t cut it. It does not have valuable nutrition and it may increase fluid loss and worsen dehydration. Breakfast doesn’t have to be a large sit-down meal either, but it should be nutrient dense and include fruit.
Plan your evening snack, and make it healthy. This starts at the grocery store. When shopping, look for foods that are healthy options for evening snacking, such as hummus, low fat cheese and crackers, yogurt and fruit, or lower sugar cereals. Try to keep it to less than 200 calories.
Eat your evening snack at the kitchen table, not in front of the television or computer, where you are more likely to lose track of how much you’ve eaten. So, dish out a serving of frozen yogurt instead of taking the quart to the couch.
Even if you’ve planned a healthy snack, evaluate whether or not you really need to eat. Wait 10 minutes and reassess your “hunger.” Are you truly hungry or just grabbing a snack out of habit? Perhaps a low calorie beverage, like infused water or herbal tea, would be adequate instead. Or try an activity in place of a snack. Take a walk, finish up a household chore, complete a puzzle or play a computer game to distract you from wanting a snack. Often, our late night snacking is a result of boredom.
If you find yourself snacking because of stress, try a warm bath or shower, coloring, listening to soothing music, deep breathing, or stretching and yoga to help provide stress relief.
Registered dietitian Barb Walsh is the community nutrition educator in the Tevis Center for Wellness.