How to Handle Late Night Cravings

Sometimes you can eat right all day but when evening hits the snacks beckon. Try these tips for outsmarting after-dark temptations.

The real danger of nighttime eating is that it often results from unhealthy meal patterns, not hunger. Here we take a look at some of the reasons why you may head for the kitchen after the sun goes down — and offer simple solutions to keep you on track until morning.

  1. The rationale: "I had a really stressful day at work and I deserve some junk food.”
    In the middle of a crazy day at the office, you’re too busy to think about how stressed you are. Then at night the stress catches up with you. “At night many women unwind by indulging in the foods they crave,” says Kelly C. Allison, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. The best plan of attack? Develop a food-free strategy for de-stressing.
    • Find alternative tension tamers. Post on your refrigerator a list of 10 non-food stress relievers (like curling up with a good book and taking a hot bath). Before you give in to an urge to splurge, check the list and choose one thing to do.
    • Connect with someone. Try calling a friend or relative instead of hitting the fridge. You may find out that you were really hungry not for food but for a chance to rehash your day.
  2. The rationale: “I have to have something sweet before bed.”
    If you’ve had a sweet treat every night before bed since you were a kid, the habit is hard to break. A good first step, though, is to brush your teeth right after dinner — it’s your mouth (and your brain’s) cue that you’re done eating for the day. Then, replace your evening sweet ritual with one of these:
    • Take a walk. Go for a stroll around the neighborhood with your spouse, or make a regular walking date with a pal. Not only will you burn calories instead of consuming them, but you’ll also get farther away from the fridge.
    • Have some hands-on fun. Bust out the Scrabble board and challenge your kids to a game. Or find a project that inspires you: Knit a sweater or start a photo album. Making sure your hands are occupied will make you less likely to pick up that fork or spoon, says Tara Gidus, M.S., R.D., a dietitian in private practice in Orlando, Florida.
    • Think ahead to a healthy tomorrow. Instead of hitting the kitchen for a late-night snack, hit the kitchen to prep tomorrow’s healthy breakfast and lunch.
  3. The rationale: “I’m so careful about what I eat all day that by nighttime I’m starving!”
    Maybe you’re too good during the daylight hours. If you don’t take in enough calories during the day, your body will remind you at night that it’s still hungry. Incorporate these daily habits, and you’ll be able to resist the after-dinner munchies:
    • Make breakfast a routine. Even if you’re not hungry, ditching breakfast will backfire. “Skipping daytime meals is directly linked to overeating at night,” says Gidus. Not a morning person? Start small. On day 1, have just a piece of fruit; then gradually add lean protein (like fat-free yogurt or cheese) and whole grains (granola bars, cereal, or oatmeal) until you’re eating a balanced meal every morning.
    • Schedule snacks. Eating at regular intervals ensures that you won’t be famished by nightfall. Aim to have a snack between each meal so you’re never starving when you sit down to eat. Just make sure your snacks pack protein, healthful fats, and carbs for extra staying power (think apples with peanut butter or nuts with yogurt).
    • Treat yourself. Work a small splurge into your day, and you’ll be less likely to overdo it at night. Try 1 ounce of dark chocolate or 1⁄2 cup of frozen yogurt in the afternoon.
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