Plenty of people aiming for a healthy lifestyle – of which a quality diet forms a huge part – do so very well during the day: oatmeal and fruit for breakfast, salad, and protein for lunch, with maybe a run or session at the gym after work.
Then, they get home, and all resolve collapses. Even after an adequate dinner, a bag of potato chips seems necessary to plug that remaining hole, followed by some chocolate, and at that point, ice cream pizza starts to sound like the best idea ever. You’ve done so well for 12 hours straight, surely you deserve it?
The problem with this, especially for those trying to drop a few fat rolls, is that a calorie eaten at 11 in the morning is not the same as a calorie eaten at 11 at night. When you take on food energy in the morning, you have several active hours ahead of you during which your snack will be digested, and the resulting sugar used up by your muscles, brain and other organs. Snacking at night is completely different: the food is digested while you sleep, and the sugar has no place to go except to help form new fatty tissue. You might think that this fat will just be converted back into glucose the next day, but your body evolved in a time before supermarkets and is constantly afraid that you’ll suddenly run out of food. For this reason, it prefers to make you eat again instead of dipping into those fat reserves, by making you feel sluggish and hungry until you give in to it.
There are several steps you can take to reduce the need to pig out on empty calories before bed, however, and we’ve selected some of the most effective:
Substitute Healthy Alternatives
Completely denying yourself your little pleasures may not be the best road to changing your bad habits. If you’re used to having an alcoholic nightcap before bed, try replacing it with a mug of cocoa, a cup of chamomile tea or a glass of milk, any of which will also leave you feeling more relaxed. Instead of finishing off an entire bag of potato chips each evening, pop some fresh popcorn (which you can flavor with natural herbs and spices).
One of the benefits of popcorn (or a bowl of peanuts) is that you can pace yourself and finish it slowly. A candy bar might disappear in three bites; you might want to finish a microwave taco before it gets cold, but munching popcorn keeps your jaws moving for a much longer time, helping to still your hunger pangs.
Another way to trick your body is to substitute flavor for bulk. If you can’t stop thinking about ice cream, a cup of mint tea might hit exactly the right nerve endings without adding a joule to your energy intake (scents such as peppermint and vanilla suppress food cravings, nobody is sure why). Similarly, sucking on butterscotch candy can satisfy a craving for both fat and sweetness.
Eat Whole Foods to Stay Full
Much of the time, feeling hungry is a sign of temporarily low blood sugar. There’s an easy way to beat this, however: eating foods with a low G. I.
If your dinner was a stack of pancakes made with white flour and served with syrup, it will be digested very quickly. You might feel like you have lots of energy an hour after eating, but an hour or two after that, your meal has already been fully digested, and most of it stored in fat cells. This will make you feel hungry again, even though you’ve taken in enough calories.
In contrast, if your dinner contained a balanced mix of fiber, protein, and carbohydrates, it moves through your gut slowly and releases its energy bit by bit. You will feel satisfied for longer, while both your insulin levels and your mood will be much more stable.
The key point in selecting food with a low G. I. rating is to avoid a) sugar and b) refined carbohydrates. What is meant by “b” is any starch that doesn’t contain the whole grain: white rice, white pasta, white bread – pretty much anything that’s white when you see it on your plate but not in nature (opinion remains divided on potatoes).
Don’t Be Bored
A lot of the time, people snack just because it’s something to do. If you suspect that this is happening to you, you are probably not getting the best use out of your waking hours in any case.
The subconscious is pretty easily distracted. If you find yourself craving something specific, like buffalo wings or a certain brand of candy bar, you can probably take your mind off it just by finding another activity to occupy it. Pause whatever is on the TV and go tidy your study – after ten minutes, you might not even remember what you were so desperately wishing for.
Make the Decision When You Shop, Not at Midnight
It’s just a fact that our willpower is not at its peak when we’re tired. Make this work for you by choosing to eat more healthily while that choice still is fully in your hands: don’t buy junk food that will end up pleading for your attention when you can’t resist.
Aim to have a few sweet snacks (like dried or fresh fruit), some high in fiber to fill you up (celery sticks stuffed with peanut butter or wholegrain crackers) as well as some containing some protein (low-fat yogurt or unsalted nuts). These three types should satisfy most any cravings you might experience.
Eat a Variety of Foods Throughout the Week
A craving can sometimes signify lack in your nutritional palette, but unfortunately, our bodies aren’t especially good at telling us exactly what’s missing in our diet. Every guy who hankers for a steak and beer doesn’t have an iron deficiency, though he might well need a dose of vitamin C or calcium.
Skinless chicken, brown rice, and steamed broccoli are a healthy, balanced meal, but eating chicken, rice and broccoli for lunch five days out of seven is not something a dietitian would recommend. Bulk nutrients like carbohydrates and protein are pretty much interchangeable, but not all fruit and vegetables contain everything your body needs to function efficiently. Even if you feel you can’t live without bananas, try to eat other types of fruit a few times each week to cover the whole spectrum.
In this regard, some people recommend watching the color of the vegetables you eat. This may not be a 100% accurate, but if you have red (tomatoes), yellow (carrots) and green (spinach) on your plate, you are well on your way.
Keep to a Circadian Routine
Of course, it is just not feasible for all of us to be in bed by ten, every night of our lives, but generally sticking to a timetable for when we eat dinner and when we go to bed can help control cravings. If you stay up later than usual, you’re almost certain to want a snack. Your body has no way of knowing that you’re about to want to sleep and that those extra calories won’t be needed, it just knows that dinner was a long while ago.
Limit the amount of screen time you subject yourself to in an hour or so before bedtime. Our eyes and nervous systems are sensitive to blue light, which occurs naturally during the day and is therefore associated with wakefulness. As such, it makes us feel more alert and less inclined to go to sleep – the problem with this being that the electronic screens of everything from smartphones to televisions emit a lot of blue light, potentially stopping you from falling asleep for some time afterward. Another benefit for those who tend to binge-snack is avoiding advertisements: food companies wouldn’t be spending millions on publicity if they didn’t think it affects your behavior, and you are more susceptible to suggestion when you’re already tired.
Additionally, especially if you suffer from occasional insomnia, a regular pre-bed routine can help you get to sleep faster and short-circuit your body’s demand for a chocolate-chip cookie. This can be as simple as doing a few stretches and drinking a hot non-caffeinated beverage just before lying down. Through some unknown mechanism, doing this regularly helps to form the correlation between the routine and the body knowing to relax and shut up about food. Here’s a fun fact for you: if you spend half an hour every night before bed reading an old-fashioned paper book, an average reader will finish a full-length novel every two weeks or so.
Don’t Feel Hungry
Well, that’s just about the theme here, isn’t it? What is less obvious, however, is that many people suppress their desire for food during the day, either because they don’t make the time to eat, or because they think that starving yourself is the way to diet. Then, after the sun sets, they lose all control and eat like hyenas. Due to the difference in how food energy is absorbed during the day and just before sleeping, it’s just not possible to “save up” your calories for dinner.
A good eating plan starts with breakfast. Eating your first meal within 90 minutes of waking up, and making sure it contains a generous amount of protein, sets you up for the rest of the day. Eating three or four eggs for breakfast may seem excessive, but your body will have plenty of time to absorb them, and the protein boost will help suppress cravings throughout the day.
If you don’t keep feeding your body a reasonable number of carbs throughout the day, this will only lead to low blood sugar when you’re relaxing at home, making it that much more difficult to refuse a sugary, starchy, fatty treat.
Water, Water Everywhere
A substantial number of people can’t adequately distinguish between being hungry and being thirsty. This is just the way we’re built, but it does someone trying to pursue a diet no favors at all. Consuming excessive amounts of additives like sodium can make the problem worse.
What many people don’t understand is that getting and staying properly hydrated is not something you do once a day and can then forget about. If you were to drink eight glasses of water this minute, your kidneys will simply see that as excess and get rid of it in the traditional way, even if other organs are dehydrated.
A good way to know that you are drinking enough water is if you urinate once every several hours. Some useful tips include drinking several glasses of cold water as soon as you wake up: this will help get you alert and replace the liquid absorbed by your tissues while you slept. Drinking water during or after meals slows down the rate at which it is absorbed, helping your body to get the most use out of it. Consider eating a thick, hearty soup for lunch or dinner. Not only is the food digested more slowly, keeping you energized and less hungry for longer, but the water remains in your system for a longer period.
Finally, drinking coffee, alcohol or soda can dehydrate you without you ever realizing it, so consume these in moderation.
Sometimes it seems like eating healthily consists of doing 99 things right every day while getting one thing wrong can ruin everything. Thinking in this way will only stress you out unnecessarily, ironically pushing you closer to giving in to your snack cravings.
The news is mostly not bad, however: every problem you might be experiencing is something thousands of other people have already struggled with and found solutions for. If you ate a whole tub of ice cream last night, it’s not the end of the world. Small, consistent efforts – and just a little self-discipline – will help you change your eating and snacking habits, producing spectacular effects over the long term.