Nighttime Overeating: The Worst Time to Overeat (cont.)

Obesity expert Edward Saltzman, MD, thinks the real problem is not so much that we burn fewer calories at night, but that nighttime eating tends to result from unhealthy meal patterns. The three types of meal-pattern problems Saltzman sees most often are:

  • People don't eat during the day and then become ravenous and overeat at night. "If people wonder why they aren't hungry in the morning, it could be because they ate too much the night before," explains Saltzman, an energy metabolism scientist with the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.
  • Food is used for all sorts of emotional reasons at the end of a workday (as a relaxant, as entertainment, as a distraction, etc.)
  • Eating becomes associated with sedentary behavior, like watching television. In other words, we get into a pattern of eating while we watch TV or use a computer -- activities many of us tend to do in the evening.

Why We Eat at Night

There are many reasons why so many of our total calories tend to be eaten during and after dinner, including physiological, emotional, cultural, and possibly evolutionary influences. They include:

  • It's part of our culture to eat a large dinner. It's also customary in many homes to enjoy a large dessert after dinner.
  • Some people, especially women, skip meals or undereat during the day. It can take quite a lot of food to satisfy the body's hunger after a day of undereating.
  • Overeating at dinner or late at night may help to calm people from stresses that build during the day.
  • Studies show that meals eaten with others are, on average, 44% larger than meals eaten alone. Since dinner tends to be the meal that is more often shared, this may partially explain why it's also most likely to be the largest meal.
  • From an evolutionary perspective, nighttime used to represent the longest time period without food and activity. In modern times; however, artificial light allows people to remain awake and continue to eat, perhaps, contributing to obesity.

Tips for Overcoming Nighttime Noshing

But even with all this working against us, experts say, it is possible to avoid nighttime overeating. If you're a nighttime nosher, here are some tips to help you kick the habit:

1. Get in the habit of enjoying a hot cup of decaffeinated tea at night. Tea comes in so many great flavors that you'll never be bored. In the warmer months, have a glass of iced tea instead.

2. Many people snack at night because they're bored. Keep your evenings interesting, and you'll find it easier to refrain from mindless snacking. Take a night class, plan an evening exercise session, find a new and interesting book or hobby, etc.

3. If you've gotten into the habit of eating in front of the television, vow to eat only in the kitchen and only drink no-calorie beverages while watching TV. Or limit your TV eating to fruits and vegetables. Occupy your hands in other ways -- ride a stationary bike, do exercises with an exercise ball, take up knitting, pay bills, or write notes to friends.