There's nothing wrong with a small late-night snack when you're hungry. But if you're eating a lot, or for any other reason, you could be asking for trouble.
On hot summer nights, it can be more tempting than ever to curl up in your favorite chair with some comfort food, like a big bowl of ice cream. But before you give in to the urge, you may want to consider the consequences.
More than snacking at other times of day, a nighttime snack habit has the potential to lead to health problems, says Samantha Rider, Clinical Nutrition Manager at CHRISTUS St. Patrick Hospital. Weight gain, digestive problems and sleep disruptions are all potential consequences.
A big part of the problem is that night eating often has nothing to do with hunger, Rider explains. "Any time you eat when you're not hungry, you're in trouble," she says.
Nighttime eating often comes from boredom, loneliness or depression. People may also eat at night out of habit or just because it's the only time of day when they aren't busy. Because many of these factors are emotional, nighttime eating tends toward comfort foods, Rider says. And that often means high-fat, high-calorie or salty foods such as chips and sweets.
For all these reasons and more, it's a good idea to reconsider a late-night snacking habit.
Many factors can contribute to unhealthy eating patterns. But most problem areas can be addressed with simple strategies:
Emotional eating. If you feel like eating but you're not physically hungry, try to figure out what you're feeling, Rider says.
If you're really just bored, read a book, play cards, sew, start a project or find a new hobby. If you're lonely, call or write someone. If you're anxious, relax with deep breathing or a bubble bath. Find things other than food that make you feel good.
A bad habit. If you eat at night just because you're used to it, try "closing" the kitchen after dinner. Store food only in the kitchen, and turn off the kitchen and dining room lights after dinner every night. Plan not to go back until breakfast, and spend the rest of the evening in a different area of the house.
Coming home hungry. If you come home from work famished, you're setting yourself up to overeat all evening. Eat well all day and try to space out your calories somewhat evenly. Ideally, breakfast should be your largest meal and dinner your smallest, Rider says.
Unconscious eating. If you need a snack at night, stop what you're doing and take time to savor it. It's much easier to overeat when you're distracted by the television, the computer, a book, work or any other activity.
If you must have a snack while you watch television, try unbuttered, air-popped popcorn. It's filling, high in fiber, low in fat, takes some time to eat and has only 23 calories a cup.
Junk food cravings. If the very sight of chips, cookies or other high-calorie foods wilts your willpower, don't keep them around. Stock your kitchen with healthy snacks instead.
"I believe in listening to your body," Rider says. If you're truly hungry, there's nothing wrong with a small late-night snack.
Try a piece of fruit, some low-fat yogurt, graham crackers, pretzels, a popsicle or vegetables with low-fat dip. Protein-rich foods such as milk and turkey can also help. They contain tryptophan, an amino acid that helps you get to sleep and stay asleep.
Try to avoid spicy foods or anything with caffeine, alcohol or MSG, which can interfere with sleep. And keep it light-150 to 200 calories should be enough, Rider says. Eating too much before bed can cause heartburn and indigestion.
The next time you're tempted toward the kitchen after dinner, take a moment to think about what's calling you. If it isn't hunger, food isn't the best way to answer it.If it is hunger, have a small, nutritious snack that won't come between you and sleep.