Many diet plans ban you from eating past some specific time, such as 7 p.m, but no magical diet "witching hour" exists. These diets are trying to prevent you from binging on unhealthy, high-calorie snack foods after dinner. An evening in front of the television or a movie can certainly drive you to munch mindlessly from a bag of chips or bucket of buttery popcorn, but your evening meal and post-meal snacks don't have to differ wildly from other weight-loss oriented meals enjoyed during the day. If you find yourself eating and consuming food regularly in the middle of the night, dietary interventions can help.
A Late Dinner Doesn't Undermine Weight Loss
People eat at different times of the day, according to work schedules, hunger, exercise and wake times; no one schedule works for everyone. If you budget your calories throughout the day and don't over-consume in the evening, you can eat moderate portions of lean proteins, vegetables and whole grains at your nighttime meal. Do avoid excessive sugar, refined grains and saturated fats, but these foods can do just as much damage to your weight-loss goals at mid-day as they can at night.
An evening meal might include grilled flank steak, steamed asparagus and wild rice; broiled salmon with butternut squash and a green salad; or a moderate serving of whole-wheat pasta topped with marinara sauce, broccoli and broiled ground turkey. As long as your meal is balanced and the calories budgeted for, no magical combination of nutrients or banishment of a whole food group will help you lose weight.
You could even do yourself damage by setting a stop time for eating. For example, you may set a 7 p.m. eating deadline but have to work late without access to food. If you arrive home at 8 p.m. and skip dinner, it could make you overly hungry for breakfast the next day, and you might overeat. Instead, eat a sensible meal containing healthy, whole-foods instead of punishing yourself for circumstances beyond your control.
You may choose a healthy dinner entree but find yourself snacking mindlessly as the evening wears on. If post-dinner is time that you reach for salty treats, such as nacho cheese chips, or can't stop yourself from polishing off a pint of ice cream, you need to rethink your choices. If you feel the urge to snack because you're truly hungry, try frozen grapes, air-popped popcorn, carrot sticks with a couple of tablespoons of hummus, celery dipped in salsa, or plain yogurt with fresh berries.
If nighttime snacking is just a habit, find an activity to occupy your hands. Try knitting or another craft, paint your nails, or get away from the screen altogether and do yoga or take a walk.
Nighttime Eating Disorder
About 1 to 2 percent of the population exhibits disordered eating that involves bingeing while sleep walking. Why people suffer from this disorder is unclear, researchers believe that it has a connection to addiction and depression. The late-night snacking has a clear relationship to obesity and even severe obesity, though. Many nighttime eaters go for carbohydrate-rich foods that are often classified as comforting, such as pizza, cheese, ice cream and cake.
If you're not completely awake, it's hard to make good food choices. The behavior requires intervention from a medical-care provider and a dietitian. A dietitian can help you better pace your meals during the day, breaking the cycle. An at-home strategy could be to rid your pantry and refrigerator of high-calorie, nutritionally-bereft foods so you can't do as much damage when you do sleep eat. Load up on fresh fruit, cut-up vegetables, whole-grain crackers and low-fat cheese, instead.
Shift Workers and Weight Loss
If you're a shift worker, nighttime eating can be a challenge. You may snack to simply stay awake or because of the availability of unhealthy foods. Since working at night works against your natural biorhythms, your sensations of hunger may be off. Shift workers are more likely to be diagnosed with metabolic disorders and heart disease. This may not only have to do with poor eating habits, but also with how your body reacts to alterations to its normal sleep, wake and digestive cycle.
You can still lose weight even if you work the overnight shift. You may have to be more diligent in packing healthy snacks and meals as the food available to you at all-night fast food restaurants or convenience stores isn't always the best option. If your shift lasts for eight hours, for example, treat it like an eight-hour day at an office. Eat a healthy, whole foods meal prior to beginning your shift and plan for another during; budget for one or two snacks.
Your pre-work meal could consist of any combination of lean proteins, such as fish, eggs, white-meat poultry or tofu, lots of fresh vegetables and a small serving of whole grains. It could be a breakfast-style meal of eggs, peppers and whole-wheat toast, or a dinner-style meal consisting of broiled fish, sweet potatoes and spinach. Snacks to pack include fresh fruit, plain low-fat yogurt, cottage cheese, whole grain crackers with low-fat cheese, an ounce of raw nuts or cut-up vegetables. The meal you pack might include a can of tuna packed in water with a whole-wheat roll and a green salad; a deli turkey sandwich on 100-percent whole-wheat bread with avocado slices and tomato with an apple; or a 1/2 cup of brown rice with a tofu stir fry that you reheat.