Late Night Snacking, a Notorious Culprit in Weight Gain

By Julie Upton, MS, RD, CSSD

A recent study published in the medical journal Obesity revealed that late night snacking may lead to weight gain. The study’s findings have been covered extensively in the news media, with most of the coverage focusing on the reports that night owls tend to eat fast food, drink sodas, and eat less fruits and veggies compared to those who go to bed earlier.

Daytime and Nighttime Calories
Are Metabolically Not the Same

What most comments failed to mention, however, was that eating past 8:00 pm was an independent predictor of weight gain and was correlated with total daily energy consumption, regardless of what time the study participants went to bed or how many hours they slept.

Don’t fuel up to sleep
Our bodies don’t need fuel to sleep. We’re not vampires or bats. We’re humans, and our circadian clock is set to eat during the day when we’re awake and most active. Our night noshing is driven more by habit than by hunger.

Researchers at Northwestern University followed 52 adults who wore wrist monitors that tracked their activity and sleep patterns. The subjects also recorded all of their food intake and timing of meals and snacks over the 7-day study. Roughly half of the participants had normal sleep patterns, while the other half stayed up late and woke up later.

The results showed that night owls ate about 754 calories after 8 pm, while the normal sleepers ate about 376 calories during the same time. Unless you are an endurance athlete, shift worker, or are planning to go out dancing all night, eating that many calories (376+) this late is too much for almost anyone.

Many nutrition experts believe that when it comes to food intake, a calorie is a calorie, regardless of when it’s consumed. However, while this is a relatively new area of research, this recent study and others suggest that daytime and nighttime calories are not metabolically the same.

Research shows that our circadian rhythms that control sleep, eating, and activity levels are normally synchronized, so we don’t have to eat at night. Eating too late may cause disruptions in the hormones that regulate appetite and hunger, making it harder to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight range. In fact, studies show that rodents get fatter when they get fed at times when they’d normally be at rest; even feeding animals at different light/dark cycles results in weight gain. Night eaters may also be distracted when munching and crunching, and this too may cause overeating. Also, the foods that are readily available after hours may not be the healthiest.

Beat the diet bewitching hour
I’m not a night person, and I’m even less of a nighttime eater. After dinner I’ll have water and/or tea while watching television, but I rarely eat. It took some time to develop this healthier habit, but once I did, I never even thought about my old favorite moon-time munchies again.

If you’re struggling with unwanted weight gain, try not to eat after dinner and see if it helps. If you’re still quite hungry at night, plan a light snack of up to 200 calories, and make it nutritious as well as filling, like handful of nuts with a cup of tea; half of a PB&J on whole wheat; whole-grain crackers with some low-fat cheese; half a cup of yogurt or cottage cheese with dried fruit; or a piece of fresh fruit.

Julie Upton, MS, RD, CSSD is a Registered Dietitian, writer, and contributor to national news programs, including CNN, ABC World News Tonight, The Today Show, and MTV. She is the co-author of “Energy to Burn: The Ultimate Food and Nutrition Guide to Fuel Your Active Life,” and a new book, “The Real Skinny: Appetite for Health’s 101 Fat Habits and Slim Solutions.” For more information, visit her blog Appetite for Health.

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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