Even if you have no problem faithfully sticking to healthy food choices during the day, the hours between finishing work and going to sleep can be plagued by pitfalls that can send weight-loss plans veering off course.
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At the end of a busy day, food can go from simple sustenance to a source of relaxation and even stress relief. "Often the food choices we make at night are impulse foods and cravings we give in to as inhibitions lessen with fatigue," explains Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of the Belly Fat Diet for Dummies. As a result, the evening hours can become prime time for loading up on empty calories that fail to fill you up — and trigger the body to store more fat, she notes.
It doesn't have to be this way, of course. By building healthier nighttime eating habits, you can train yourself to avoid the obstacles that stand in the way of your weight-loss goals. Here, eight smart strategies to try.
1. Eat Dinner, Not Snacks
Do your nighttime calories tend to come in the form of a constant stream of nibbles, instead of an actual dinner? It can be tempting to grab a snack when you finish up work — and continue having a munch here and a munch there throughout the night.
But grazing can bring on blood sugar spikes and dips that increase fat storage — even if calorie intake is the same as what you'd get from one larger meal. Eating less frequently and not snacking are key strategies for weight management, per September 2017 research published in the Journal of Nutrition.
That's why experts like Palinski-Wade recommend having a single dinner instead. "When trying to lose weight, you want to balance blood sugar levels to limit spikes in insulin, which can better help you burn fat," she explains. "If you eat one meal, your blood sugar will rise along with insulin after eating and then steadily decline."
2. Eat on the Early Side
When it comes to picking a dinner time, you're better off being an early bird than a night owl. Adults who ate dinner at 6 p.m. burned 10 percent more fat and experienced blood sugar peaks 20 percent lower compared to those who waited until 10 p.m. to eat, according to a June 2020 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
If dining early doesn't seem doable, aim to finish dinner at least 2 to 3 hours before going to bed, Palinski-Wade recommends. "This gives your body ample time to digest the food and allows blood sugar and insulin levels to return to baseline before laying down," she says.
3. Downsize Your Dinner
If dinner tends to be the biggest meal of the day and breakfast tends to be the smallest, try flipping those proportions. The body's metabolism works at a significantly higher rate in the morning compared to later in the day, according to findings published in February 2020 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. As a result, you'll burn off more of the calories from a big breakfast than from a big dinner.
Still like the feeling of sitting down to a big meal at night? Filling half of your plate with veggies makes your portions feel more generous while keeping your overall calorie count low, Palinski-Wade says.
4. Sit at the Table — and Don’t Look at a Screen
Make dinnertime its own special event free of multitasking. Eating with distractions like TV or your phone makes it harder to pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues, which can cause you to eat faster and take in calories that you don't actually need, explains nutrition expert Sarah Pflugradt, RDN, LDN.
Instead, simply sit at the table and focus on your food. Practicing mindful eating techniques, including eating slow and without distractions, was enough to help overweight adults get leaner over the course of 15 weeks, according to research published in June 2018 in the Journal of Family Medicine & Community Health. "Aim for at least 20 minutes without distractions while you eat your meal," Pflugradt says.
5. Plan a Protein-Packed Breakfast
Deciding the night before what you'll eat in the morning means there's no risk of grabbing something junky — or skipping breakfast altogether and getting slammed with the urge to snack mid-morning.
While you're prepping ahead, aim for a breakfast that packs at least 10 to 15 grams of protein, Pflugradt recommends. High-protein morning meals promote better blood sugar control compared to breakfasts that are high in carbs or fat, which in turn can resist the urge to snack later on, according to September 2017 findings published in the American Clinical Journal of Nutrition.
Protein-Packed Breakfast Options:
6. Set a Bedtime and Stick to It
Sleep and weight are closely related — and the less shut-eye you get, the more likely you are to struggle with excess pounds. Among overweight adults trying to lose weight over the course of a year, those who regularly logged 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night lost more weight than those who usually slept for 6 hours or less, per a June 2019 study published in the International Journal of Obesity.
Lack of sleep spurs the production of hormones that can drive you to eat more, and even lead you to confuse feeling tired for feeling hungry, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
If you need to be up by 6:30 a.m., aim to be asleep by 11:30 p.m. at the very latest.
7. Skip the Late-Night Scrolling
Catching up on your social feeds might seem like a good way to unwind at the end of the day. But you may be better off cutting back if you're trying to lose weight. Social media tends to have a negative effect on body image for women and adolescent girls, since seeing picture after picture of idealized bodies can leave you feeling bad about not matching up, per a January 2019 review published in Current Obesity Reports.
If you don't want to cut out Facebook or Instagram altogether, try setting a short time limit on your usage and sticking to it. And pay attention to any accounts that trigger negative feelings about your body. If you notice certain images make you feel bad, it might be worth unfollowing.
8. Make Time for a Stress-Buster
Use the time you were spending on social media to actively relax.
Adults with obesity who participated in an 8-week stress-management program lost significantly more weight than those who didn't take steps to tame the tension, per a October 2018 study published in the Journal of Molecular Biochemistry. "Stress releases hormones that not only make it hard to lose weight, but that make us crave unhealthy foods that bring us comfort," Pflugradt explains. "Stress management is extremely important for weight loss."
The key is finding a stress-buster that you enjoy. Yoga and meditation can be great options if you like them enough to stick with them. But spending time in nature, taking a bath, listening to music or even watching a funny movie can all get the job done too, per the Mayo Clinic.
- Journal of Nutrition: "Meal Frequency and Timing Are Associated with Changes in Body Mass Index in Adventist Health Study 2"
- Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism: "Metabolic Effects of Late Dinner in Healthy Volunteers—A Randomized Crossover Clinical Trial"
- Journal of Nutrition: "Twice as High Diet-Induced Thermogenesis After Breakfast vs Dinner On High-Calorie as Well as Low-Calorie Meals"
- Journal of Family Medicine & Community Health: "Mindful Eating and Weight Loss, Results from a Randomized Trial"
- American Clinical Journal of Nutrition: "Effect of Prior Meal Macronutrient Composition on Postprandial Glycemic Responses and Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load Value Determinations"
- International Journal of Obesity: "High Sleep Variability Predicts a Blunted Weight Loss Response and Short Sleep Duration a Reduced Decrease in Waist Circumference in the PREDIMED-Plus Trial"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "5 Tips to Curb Your Late-Night Snacking"
- Current Obesity Reports: "Women’s Use of Social Media: What Is the Evidence About Their Impact on Weight Management and Body Image?"
- Journal of Molecular Biochemistry: "Impact of a Stress Management Program on Weight Loss, Mental Health and Lifestyle in Adults With Obesity: A Randomized Controlled Trial"
- Mayo Clinic: "Stress Management"