The Witching Hour: When Cravings Strike

Learn to ward off binge eating around the clock

By Dulce Zamora
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

You've been busy all day going about your business, not giving food a second thought, and then the clock strikes 3 p.m. BOOM! You're hit by the urge to eat something right now, and the more fatty, sugary, or salty the better. Next thing you know, you're surrounded by empty candy wrappers and filled with guilt about blowing your diet.

What happened? It was your diet witching hour, that dreaded moment when the best-laid of weight-loss plans are known to fail. And the afternoon slump isn't the only time it can happen. Your own personal diet downfall might be the morning rush, during office hours, after dinner, or deep into the night.

But no matter what time of day your food cravings tend to kick in, you don't have to let temptation win. Experts say that knowing when you're most likely to overeat and preparing for those times can help tame the beast.

Begin With Breakfast

Many people overlook the earliest meal of the day because they're rushed, don't feel like eating first thing in the morning, or think skipping breakfast will help them lose weight. Yet the scientific evidence is clear: Passing on breakfast means giving up your first line of defense against binge eating.

"People who skip breakfast at home are more likely to stop for fast food, say an Egg McMuffin on the way to work...or to crave donuts, cookies, croissants, and whatever happens to be waiting for them at the office," says Katherine Tallmadge, MA, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

She notes that various studies have shown that successful dieters (those who maintain their weight loss) tend to eat breakfast, while those who regain pounds tend to skip it.

If your resolve tends to break down at breakfast time, try these tactics:

  • Make sure you meet one-third of your daily calorie needs in the morning, says Tallmadge. She notes that people need calories most during daytime hours, when they are most likely to expend energy.
  • Have a balanced meal, such as milk, cereal, and fruit, before you leave the house. If that's not possible, keep a stash of healthy foods at the office.
  • If you don't like traditional breakfast foods, it's OK to have something else. Try leftovers from dinner the night before.

Daytime Defense

Binge eating can be triggered throughout the day, and the reasons appear to be both physiological and psychological.

People most often give into unhealthy food cravings because they are genuinely hungry -- they haven't consumed enough nutrients to sustain themselves until the next meal, says Ruth Patrick, PhD, LDN, a spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists. The other side of that, she says, is that people often think they shouldn't be eating certain foods, or eating too much of anything. The more they think about it, the more intense their desire to have what's forbidden.

And once a craving strikes, it's oh-so-easy to get something to ease it.

"The fact is that, right now, the cost of food for anyone in this country is the lowest that it's ever been in history as a percentage of gross income," says Fergus Clydesdale, PhD, head of the food science department at the University of Massachusetts. "That makes everything available to everyone whenever they want."

To defend yourself from food cravings during the day:

  • Get rid of unhealthy foods at your home and office.
  • If co-workers or housemates have junk food, keep your own supply of nutritious, ready-to-eat snacks to help with temptation.
  • Drink water. Sometimes food cravings can be satisfied just by having something, even liquid, in your stomach.
  • Snack on something hot, such as soup or sugar-free hot chocolate, or something cold, such as a frozen fruit pop or a healthy smoothie. "The extremes in temperature signal the brain that you've had something to eat, rather than just sitting down with something that's of room temperature," says Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, LMHC, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Food cravings can hit hard in the last few hours of the workday, when people are likely to become bored, tired, or stressed. "Many people seem to naturally hit a low at this time," says Tallmadge.

"For some...the munchie monster tends to come out at night. Boredom, anxiety, weariness, and habit are the
likely culprits."

Some may also feel that since they've put in a hard day of work, they deserve to reward themselves with food.

Emotions can be powerful triggers for binge eating, says Dorfman, explaining that the association between food and mood may have roots in family traditions, childhood memories, and culture: "Did you celebrate with cake and cookies on birthdays and holidays? Or when you were bad, did you run to the pantry and get yourself a treat to make yourself feel better?"

To keep your feelings from triggering an afternoon food binge:

  • Try to determine whether you're really hungry or are just trying to feed an emotion.
  • If you are hungry, dig in to your stash of healthy foods (try fruit, nuts, and yogurt). As Tallmadge notes, the late afternoon is a natural time to snack and refresh yourself. Plus, eating something nutritious now might help you eat a lighter dinner later on.
  • When snacking, choose whole instead of processed foods whenever possible. For example, fruit is better than granola bars because it can keep you feeling full longer with a lot less calories.
  • Snooze for 10-15 minutes.
  • Take a walk.
  • Wash your face and brush your teeth.
  • Every once in a while, indulge in a moderate serving of a favorite food. "Deprivation is not always good," says Patrick. "Sometimes it's psychologically better to give in to a craving."

Avoiding Evening Excess

Many people find their worst food cravings emerge in the evening. It's when we tend to be least physically active and most likely to be tired and/or bored and in need of a reward after a hard day.

It's also when we usually watch television, which can be a factor in binge eating, says Tallmadge. When distracted by a show, people often are not fully aware of what or how much they're putting in their mouths.

To guard against evening excess:

  • Make sure your fridge is stocked with healthy foods for dinners and snacks.
  • Try cooking large batches of healthy foods when you have time, then freeze portions for those nights when you're tired or pressed for time. "If, on your way home from work, you know that you have a veggie lasagna ready to be heated, you'll less likely make a stop at the greasy spoon," says Tallmadge.
  • Turn off the TV. Tape your favorite show if you want, then watch it at a time when you feel strong enough to resist food cravings
  • Keep your evenings busy: Play sports, pursue hobbies, take classes.
  • Soak in a bubble bath.
  • Call a loved one.

Quelling Late-Night Munchies

For some people, the munchie monster tends to come out at night. Again, experts say, boredom, anxiety, weariness, and habit are the likely culprits. And late-night eaters in particular seem to have a penchant for packing on the pounds.

Yet the weight gain doesn't necessarily happen because of the actual time we're eating, but the type of foods people eat at night -- things such as ice cream, potato chips, and chocolate, says WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Dietitian Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD.

To tame the midnight munchies:

  • Have balanced meals throughout the day. People who limit their intake of certain nutrients, such as carbohydrates, tend to crave those foods all the time.
  • Make sure your dinner menu includes high-fiber foods. Whole grains, veggies, and fruits tend to cut down on cravings.
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night wanting a snack, try to go back to sleep. Eating at this time is not only dreadful for your diet, it also reinforces a bad sleep pattern.
  • If you're really hungry, eat something light. You may not think a piece of fruit will satisfy you, but it probably will, Tallmadge says.

Originally published Sept. 25, 2003.
Medically updated September 2006.


SOURCES: Katherine Tallmadge, MARD, American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. Ruth Patrick, PhD, LDN, food science communicator, Institute of Food Technologists. Fergus Clydesdale, PhD, distinguished professor and head of food science department, University of Massachusetts. Lisa Dorfman, MSRD, LMHC, American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. WebMD Weight Loss Clinic article: "Are You a Midnight Muncher?" by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, published Sept. 12, 2003.

©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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