After-Hours Eating

Snacking after dinner and late-night raids on the refrigerator could be undermining your weight loss. Find out how to eat smart after dark.

In an ideal world, you would eat three regular, nutritious meals a day along with a healthy afternoon and evening snack. You've heard it time and time again, but do you know why it matters? Eating regular low carb meals helps stave off hunger and keeps blood sugar steady, thereby reducing cravings and the temptation to eat too much of the wrong things (like, a bag of chips or a pint of ice cream).

Yet despite this indisputably sound underlying principle, there's a good chance you continue to approach a day of eating in one of these two ways: You skip breakfast - or have a meager meal such as toast and jam - then skimp on lunch. By late afternoon you're ravenous, so you start snacking and keep eating right through a big dinner.


You're "good" most of the day, eating a sensible breakfast and lunch, then spin out of control in the late afternoon, downing a large dinner and then another post-meal evening snack that could be mistaken for a second dinner. Either way, if you're like many people, you take in more than half your daily calories in the evening.

Night-Eating Syndrome

For between 10 and 25 percent of seriously obese people, eating at night is something they can't control. These individuals suffer from night-eating syndrome (NES), a little understood condition in which those afflicted have trouble falling asleep, wake up during the night and eat large amounts of carbohydrate-laden foods (sometimes without remembering that they did) and aren't hungry in the morning. Night-eating syndrome was first described in 1955, but it has only recently received serious attention. According to a 1999 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, NES combines aspects of a sleep disorder similar to sleepwalking with an eating disorder and a mood disorder. More recently, other researchers have shown that NES is often related to high levels of stress hormones. If you think you might suffer from NES, consult your doctor.

Evening Eating

When you come home from a long day, you're probably hungry and tired, a combination that can loosen your resolve and make you want to eat everything in sight. If you opt for a satisfying low carb dinner, you'll have plenty to eat while still sticking to your weight-loss plan. The real problem comes in after your meal.

If you skimped earlier in the day, even a big dinner might leave you hungry a couple of hours later. And even if you aren't truly hungry, you might find yourself reaching for food to relieve stress or cope with family conflict, or simply because you're bored or tired. If that's the case, being aware of your reasons for overeating may help you cut back and take more constructive steps to deal with the underlying issues.

Stopping Snack Attacks

Of course, a lot of evening eating has nothing at all to do with emotional issues or a frenetic life. It's just a habit. Think about it: Where do you do most of your evening snacking? Chances are it's in front of the television while you're sitting passively or looking for something to do during the commercial breaks (some experts call it "unconscious eating"). Even if you've just eaten and don't really want a snack, force of habit combined with enticing food commercials can trigger your appetite. You can give in to the urge, as long as you do it sensibly.

Try these tips for enjoying low cAarb snacks in moderate portions:

  • Choose crunchy, low carb foods such as macadamia nuts, frozen blueberries or celery sticks filled with cream cheese. The crunchiness gets your mouth moving, which helps make snacks more satisfying.
  • Don't take the whole food container to the couch. Instead, put your portion onto a small plate in the kitchen and bring it with you.
  • Clear out such high carb, low-nutrition foods as cookies and chips from your kitchen. If they're not there, you can't eat them.
  • Instead of eating, have something to drink. Hot beverages can help cut your appetite - try a mug of herbal tea sweetened with Splenda, low carb hot cocoa or some chicken or beef broth. If you prefer something cold, try an Atkins Shake or sugar free iced tea or lemonade, or use Sugar Free Syrups and seltzer to make a flavorful, fizzy drink.
  • You can enjoy many of your favorite snacks in low carb versions, too. Keep low carb cheesecake, pudding, ice cream and brownies on hand for sweet-tooth emergencies.

Remember: Even low carb snacks can add up fast if you're not careful with your portions. When you splurge in the evening, it's all too easy to go over your carb count for the day without even realizing it. Just because a treat is low carb doesn't mean you can have several portions.

Alternatives to Eating

Instead of munching in front of the TV, keep your hands busy and your mind sharp by picking up an engaging pastime, like knitting, making a scrapbook or doing the daily crossword puzzle. An even better idea? Get in your exercise for the day. Ride a stationary bike, do your yoga routine, work out with free weights or resistance bands or do some stretching. Anything that gets you moving instead of eating is a smart choice.

Another Benefit: Halting Heartburn

For many of us, there's one more bonus to cutting back on evening eating: far less heartburn, especially if you have GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). A trigger for painful heartburn and uncomfortable bloating is lying down after eating a lot. That's because a full stomach puts extra pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter, the valve that closes off your stomach from your esophagus. While that alone is enough to cause acid reflux, forcing stomach acid up into your esophagus and causing heartburn, lying down in bed or on the couch makes it even easier for the acid to escape. By keeping late-night munching to a minimum, however, you sharply reduce the likelihood of experiencing heartburn. If you still crave your bedtime snack, keep it small and avoid foods that are known heartburn triggers for you.