It's like clockwork: Every night, your sweet tooth seeks out something sugary before bed.
Blame it on biology. A small March 2013 study published in the journal Obesity found that the body's internal clock hypes up hunger and cravings for sweet foods (starchy and salty ones, too) in the evenings.
While you can't change your circadian system, you don't need to be tied to your sugar cravings. Indeed, what you do at dinner can help decrease the desire for dessert and other sweets.
Here, dietitians dish up seven simple supper hacks for how to stop sugar cravings at night.
1. Skip the Soda (and Other Sugary Drinks)
A tall glass of soda at dinner could be the culprit for your late-night sugar cravings.
But here's the problem: "The faster your blood sugar goes up, the more insulin you produce, and the harder your blood sugars crash," Moskovitz explains.
This glucose rollercoaster is a recipe for a nagging sweet tooth no matter how much you ate for dinner, she says.
And regularly sipping on sugary drinks may even alter your brain. Animal studies show that sugar intake produces chemical changes in the brain – similarly seen in addiction -- that increase cravings for sweets, says Kylie Gearhart, RD, an associate of NY Nutrition Group.
The takeaway: Sack the soda and other sweet drinks at dinner (and from your overall diet).
"If you're an avid soda drinker, I would not suggest going cold turkey, which could lead to even more intense cravings, but rather reducing intake gradually by mixing half soda with half seltzer water or mixing juice with water," Gearhart says,
2. Lean on Low-Glycemic Foods
While a heaping bowl of white pasta sounds like a delicious dinner, it could leave you pining for sweets in the wee hours of the night. That's because certain foods — like refined carbs — are high on the glycemic index (GI).
The glycemic index is a value assigned to foods based on how slowly or how quickly those foods cause increases in blood sugar levels, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
High-GI foods rapidly release glucose into your bloodstream, which leads to blood sugar spikes. "But what goes up, must quickly come down, and the rapid peak and fall of glucose levels sets you up for a vicious cycle, causing crashes in energy and intensified sweet cravings," Gearhart explains.
That's why "stabilizing blood glucose levels is the name of the game for bypassing sugar cravings before bedtime," Moskovitz says.
And dining on low-glycemic foods — which release glucose slowly and steadily — can help you do just that. Fill up on green vegetables, legumes and nuts to keep your blood glucose levels balanced and stable throughout the night.
3. Pack Your Plate With Protein
Curbing late-night sugar cravings may come down to getting a proper portion of protein at dinner.
Your body digests protein more slowly than fat and carbs. "This means that when you eat a higher protein meal, it will generally keep you feeling full for a longer period of time, mitigating the urge for a sugar surge post-dinner," Moskovitz says.
In fact, protein has been proven to reduce the "hunger hormone" ghrelin and increase hormones like glucagon-like peptide-1 and cholecystokinin that contribute to satiety, Gearhart says.
"Protein also has a minimal impact on blood sugars," Moskovitz adds. And that matters because foods that quickly raise blood sugars often lead to rapid blood sugar crashes, and, consequently, more sugar cravings.
So, make sure your supper plate gets an ample portion of protein. Fortunately, there's a plethora of protein options perfect for the dinner table. From chicken, turkey and fish to eggs, tofu and legumes, you can find a healthy source of protein no matter what your dietary preferences.
4. Fill Up With Fiber
Odds are you're not getting an ample amount of filling fiber at dinner (or in general). Indeed, most Americans — a staggering 95 percent — don't get enough fiber per day, according to a July 2016 paper in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
But if you want to slash sugar cravings, fiber is your friend. "One of the biggest benefits of fiber is that it slows digestion and fat absorption, causing you to remain full and satisfied for longer with reduced cravings," Gearhart says.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend between 25 and 34 grams of fiber a day if you're a person under 50 years of age, or 22 to 28 grams if you're over.
You can help hit your daily target by piling your dinner plate with high-fiber foods including veggies, legumes and whole grains. For quick and easy dinners, Moskovitz recommends opting for a pre-prepared source of fiber-rich whole grains like Seeds of Change Organic Quinoa & Brown Rice.
When you add more fiber to your diet, be sure to drink adequate fluids to prevent constipation, Gearhart says.
5. Stay Hydrated
The desire to dish on sweets after dinner might actually mean you're thirsty.
"We can often confuse thirst with hunger," Moskovitz says. You might experience excessive thirst masked as sugar cravings especially if your dinner was a little saltier than usual, she adds.
To quench your thirst, drink 1 to 2 cups of water before supper, then sip on more throughout your meal, Moskovitz says.
6. Turn Off the TV
Eating dinner in front of the tube: we've all been guilty of it. But when you're tuned into the television, you're not paying attention to your plate. "It is hard to be completely aware and present when you are surrounded by distractions, especially the TV," Moskovitz says.
Not only do you run the risk of overeating (because you're not heeding your fullness cues), but you might also find yourself longing for late-night sweets.
Case in point: Eating while watching TV is associated with a greater consumption of high-sugar foods and sweetened beverages in children, per an October 2017 systematic review in Maternal & Child Nutrition.
The simple solution here is to switch off the screen. "You will feel much more satisfied after dinner if you are taking your time and enjoying the meal, rather than mindlessly shoveling food in your mouth while distracted by social media or TV," Gearhart says.
And practice mindful eating during dinner: Chew your food slowly, savoring each bite and utilizing all your senses, Gearhart says.
7. Eat Enough
Sometimes late-night sugar cravings signal that you're not eating enough during dinner.
"If you're trying to watch calories, carbs or portions in general, it can be common to cut back too far," Moskovitz says. But this can backfire later.
When you don't eat enough food (especially carbs) at mealtime, your body will let you know, often in the form of sugar cravings.
To combat this, always eat a balanced dinner (breakfast and lunch, too) complete with all three macronutrients (carbs, fat and protein), Gearhart says.
And if You’re Still Craving Sweets After Dinner...
Sometimes despite our best efforts, we simply can't shake our sweet tooth after dinner. And that's OK. Here's how to handle your late-night hankering in a healthy way.
Pause to see if the pining passes. "Sometimes cravings only last for a few minutes," Gearhart says.
"If you feel you truly ate enough throughout the day and consumed an appropriately portioned, balanced dinner, try to distract your mind for a bit by going for a walk, cleaning your room, organizing your closet or calling a friend," she says.
But if you still have a hankering, don't fight the cravings. "Work with them instead," Moskovitz says. "If it truly feels like a food craving and not an emotional craving, then combine a little bit of what you want with something you know your body needs."
For example, fill half a bowl with ice cream and the other half with fresh fruit and nuts. "You will still feel like you're getting a satisfying portion, but by adding in fiber-rich or protein-rich foods, it will keep your blood sugars stable and provide nourishment at the same time," she says.
- American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine: “Closing America’s Fiber Intake Gap”
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans"
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Glycemic index for 60+ foods”
- Maternal & Child Nutrition: “Associations between children's diet quality and watching television during meal or snack consumption: A systematic review”
- Obesity: “The internal circadian clock increases hunger and appetite in the evening independent of food intake and other behaviors”