Are You a Midnight Muncher?

Break the late-night eating habit

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Does the refrigerator call your name after dark? Chances are, you satisfied your hunger at dinner, so these late-night munchies are not about being hungry. Instead, they're a result of habit, boredom, stress, or fatigue after a long, hard day. No matter what the cause, eating at night usually leads to overeating, and can wreak havoc on your weight-loss diet.

For many people, late-night eating is just a habit -- it's quiet at night, no one is around to see you eat, and it's a peaceful time to enjoy your favorite foods. Unfortunately, this habit has got to go if you are going to lose weight permanently. If you eat more calories at times of day when you're not expending much energy, you're likely to gain weight.

Breaking Free of Late-Night Eating

But keep in mind that it's not necessarily the time you eat that leads to weight gain, but the type of foods you tend to eat late at night. Favorite foods for after-dark munching include ice cream, potato chips, chocolate, desserts -- you get the picture. Your body does not process food differently after dark, but nighttime tends to be the most sedentary time of the day, when your calorie needs are minimal. The bottom line: Eating after dinner tends to pack on the pounds.

So what's a dieter to do? The ideal solution is to eat three square meals a day and avoid all between-meal eating. Because that is not so easy to do, here are 10 tips to help you get over midnight munching:

  • Resolve not to eat late in the day or after dinner.
  • Distract yourself -- take the dog for a walk, curl up with a good book, or relax in a hot bath.
  • Satisfy your cravings with a low calorie alternative like herbal tea, a handful of veggies, or a piece of fruit.
  • Increase the fiber in your diet, especially at dinner. Try adding beans or whole grains to keep you feeling full.
  • Increase the protein in your dinner. Recent research suggests that protein has the greatest staying power to keep hunger at bay.
  • Limit all eating to the kitchen or dining room, and always eat while sitting down at the table. This helps curb "eating amnesia," that mindless munching in front of the television.
  • Eat slowly and savor the taste of your food. Give yourself 15 to 20 minutes for your brain to get the signal that you have had enough.
  • Start your day with breakfast. People who skip breakfast are more likely to snack impulsively on calorie-laden foods.
  • Let your journal be your friend. Use your diet journal to help you track your meals and keep you on target with your eating plan.
  • Drink plenty of water. Not only will it help you stay hydrated, it will give you something to do with your hands and mouth.

Here's one more important consideration: Make sure you have not cut your calorie intake so low that you are starving at night. You may need to bump up your daytime calories a bit to stave off late-night hunger. But before you create a new eating plan, make sure that your urge to eat at night is really hunger -- not boredom or just habit.

The most successful dieters eat three meals a day and resist the temptation to snack between meals and after dinner. Oprah Winfrey's diet guru, Bob Greene, advises clients not to eat at all after 8 p.m., as a technique to limit total calories.

So if you're plagued by midnight munchies, do your best to get yourself into a regular meal routine. Keep it simple, and remember that your main goal is to get into the habit of not eating after dinner.

Originally published Sept. 12, 2003.
Medically updated Sept. 1, 2004.

SOURCES: American Journal of Epidemiology, July 2003. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, July 2003.

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