If you struggle with ‘nighttime snacking’, ‘nighttime noshing’ or the ‘midnight munchies’, you’re not alone. In fact, this annoying little habit is by far the most common dietary complaint I hear in my nutrition practice. When I ask clients the 5 W’s of their snacking situation, the answers I usually receive are: chips; after supper; on the couch (while watching TV); with my partner; because I craved salt.
So what gives? Why, despite being such an intelligent species, are we unable to resist our cravings for salty and sweet snacks (even when we know they’re not good for us)? To answer this question, we need to understand a little more about how our brain reacts to such highly-palatable foods.
Your Brain on Food
The hypothalamus is a pea-sized region at the base of the brain that regulates appetite using information delivered through a complex network of nerves and hormones (1). The hypothalamus’ job is to keep us in energy and weight balance by motivating us to eat when energy intake is less than demand, and turning off the desire to eat once this imbalance corrects. However, this feedback loop can be overridden by consuming highly palatable foods (rich in sugar and fat) that activate the reward centre of our brain (2). And since humans are driven by reward, we’re motivated to continue seeking out foods that tap into this part of the brain. But here’s the kicker; frequently consuming highly-palatable foods dulls the pleasure we receive from them over time. As such, we need to eat more and more of these foods to elicit the same level of pleasure that our body craves (3).
To combat the pleasure-numbing impact of these foods, we need to reduce our exposure to them. As a general rule, avoid bringing any food into the house that you find yourself compulsively over-eating. For example, in my house, we don’t buy ice cream. Why? Because I will eat a bowl of it every night until it’s gone. Then, thanks to my reward centre, I will be motivated to seek out another pint and consume that until it’s gone. By limiting my exposure to ice cream, I also limit my craving for it. Now, this doesn’t mean that I never eat ice cream; after all, it’s still one of my favourite foods! Rather, when I do get the urge to eat ice cream, I drive to my favourite creamery, order what I truly want, and sit-down to mindfully eat it using all 5 senses. Craving satisfied.
When, What, and How You Eat
Nighttime eating can also result from what, when, and how you ate during the day. What I often notice in my practice is that clients who complain of evening hunger eat very little during the day, despite this being the timeframe when they are most active. Look at your energy intake in Cronometer – is supper your biggest meal? Are there large gaps of time (i.e. more than 5 hours) without food? If so, there’s a good chance that you are playing “calorie catch-up” for what you missed during the day. To resolve this issue, start by eating breakfast within an hour of waking and have a meal or snack every 3-4 hours afterwards. In general, each meal should contain at least 20% of your energy needs (e.g. my energy needs are ~1950 so I should eat a minimum of 400 calories at each meal) and contain at least 15-20 grams of protein and 10 grams of fibre. As I’ve discussed in previous blog posts, protein and fibre are satiety-inducing nutrients that help you feel full for a greater duration of time.
In addition, it’s important to examine how you are eating your meals and snacks. In today’s fast-paced world, we don’t set aside time to just sit and eat. This is relevant since mindless eating can reduce the pleasure and satisfaction we get from food. And, as explained above, we know how that ends. So, the next time you sit down to a meal or snack, try to do nothing but eat. Pay attention to how the food smells, tastes, looks, sounds, and feels while you are eating it. Chances are you will derive much more pleasure from eating when you’re not distracted and may even notice yourself getting full more quickly.
Your Evening Routine
After a long day of work and family obligations, most people like to sit-down in the evening to watch their favourite Netflix show or read a good book. And because we a) want to enhance our pleasure, b) haven’t eaten enough during the day, or c) are looking to self-soothe, we grab a bowl of our favourite snack to munch on while we relax. Now, what does it mean if you’re working on your nighttime eating by managing your exposure to indulgences, eating more often during the day, eating without distraction, and meeting your protein and fibre needs, but STILL find yourself craving a snack when sitting-down to relax in the evening? In this situation, it’s likely that you’re eating out of habit and that your evening routine is the trigger for your desire to eat.
If the above scenario sounds familiar, I recommend creating a new evening routine. Try switching around the time that you relax, where you relax, or what you do to relax. For example, if you normally watch TV for an hour or two after cleaning up supper, try getting ready for bed first (maybe by having a relaxing bubble bath), then sit in a different room with a cup of tea before going to bed. A simple switch of routine and scenery may be all you need to settle the urge to eat.
Have you been successful in controlling your nighttime snacking? If so, we’d love to hear about your experience! Leave a comment below!
Susan Macfarlane is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist utilizing cronometer.com to help run a busy private practice in Ontario, Canada and blogs regularly for cronometer.com
- de Macedo IC, de Freitas JS, da Silva Torres IL. The Influence of Palatable Diets in Reward System Activation: A Mini Review. Adv Pharmacol Sci. 2016;2016:7238679. Abstract available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27087806
- Pelchat ML. Of human b ondage: food craving, obsession, compulsion, and addiction. Physiol Behav. 2002 Jul;76(3):347-52. Abstract available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12117571
- Nesse RM1, Berridge KC. Psychoactive drug use in evolutionary perspective. Science. 1997 Oct 3;278(5335):63-6. Abstract available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9311928