Night-Time Snacking: Is Your Internal Body Clock to Blame?
Night-time eating may not seem like a major health concern, but it’s one that a lot of people struggle with. According to registered dietician Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, author of S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches, ‘Over the years, many of my clients on quests to eat healthier and lose weight have told me, “I do great all day, but at night, everything just seems to fall apart.” Sometimes this happens because evening hours are less busy and structured, or because we create patterns that once formed, are difficult to break, like nibbling while cooking, or always eating a sweet treat after dinner.’
However, a new study, published in the journal Obesity, has suggested that craving cookies after dark is physiologically programmed into your body. The researchers blame your circadian system – or internal clock – for tampering with your wellness, as it prompts you to reach for sweet, starchy, and salty foods in the evenings, especially around 8:00 pm. There may be an evolutionary element involved here, with your ancestors developing this built-in need to feed in order to store fat for survival when food was scarce. However, today you’re not going out of your cave and throwing a spear at a mammoth; you have everything you need at your local supermarket, and so your night-time cravings can take a hefty toll on your health and your waistline. So, how do you stop yourself going overboard in the evening?
1. Use your head: ‘For many people, eating in general, regardless of what time, tends to be mindless,’ Sass notes. ‘But when you start thinking about food as fuel for activity, it can help bring the importance of quality and balance into focus. In a nutshell, the fate of a meal or snack depends on what’s going in your body during your post-noshing hours. Eating the bulk of your food in the evening, when your activity level is low, results in winding up with far more fuel than you body needs, and the surplus gets sent straight to your fat cells.’ While you sleep, your body does the bulk of its maintenance, healing, and repair work, so processed junk food isn’t what you need to build muscle tissue, maintain a healthy immune system, or keep your skin looking radiant.
2. Break the pattern: Making a conscious effort to break the pattern of routine night-time eating can help, even if you just change the order in which you perform your evening activities. Sass explains, ‘Simply breaking the connections between certain activities and eating can help your brain let go of the notion that it doesn’t feel “right” not to follow through. Setting up new routines may seem forced or awkward at first, but before long, the healthier pattern will become your new normal.’
3. Pre-plan your meals: If you get home after a long day and there are no healthy options ready and waiting for you, you’re more likely to make a meal out of less than optimal snacks, or reach for comfort foods. Sass advises, ‘If you don’t feel like being creative, keep the ingredients for a few quick go-to meals on hand, so you can whip them up in a jiffy. One of my favourite quickies is a simple lentil salad. I always keep my fridge stocked with organic greens, and steamed vacuum-sealed lentils (you can find these in the produce section). I simply toss the greens with balsamic vinegar, add a scoop of lentils, sprinkle with sliced almonds, and pair with a serving of 100% whole grain crackers (or crush them on top).’