People who often eat late eat more and gain weight faster.
Do you often hoover snacks late at night, yet remain dissatisfied? Some research helps explain why.
When researchers showed women wearing brain-scan equipment snapshots of low-calorie foods — vegetables, fish, fruits — and tempting forbidden foods — candy, ice-cream — the second group caused a bigger spike in brain activity associated with rewards. No kidding. But one finding did create a stir: those spikes were smaller during the evening. “We thought the responses would be greater at night because we tend to over-consume later in the day,” professor of exercise sciences and study co-author Lance Davidson said in a statement. “But just to know that the brain responds differently at different times of day could have implications for eating.”
The study also found that participants were more food-obsessed at night even if they weren’t especially hungry, perhaps because they kept seeking out the reward spike.
It’s not true that your metabolism slows down at night, or that everything you eat after a certain hour “turns to fat,” as you’ll sometimes hear. The problem is that people who eat late eat more, which fits with the finding that they experience less of a reward. In one study, researchers found that night eaters ate about 300 more calories each day. In a follow-up three years later, the night eaters had gained 14 pounds, on average. People who did not eat late at night had gained only 4 pounds.
To avoid that outcome, consider these tips to curb night time eating:
- Don’t watch action flicks at night, at least not with food nearby. In a recent study, people ate twice as much food watching an action movie than another group taking in an interview program.
- Especially if you also have zero appetite in the morning, you may have a condition called “night-eating syndrome,” which is more common among the obese, and people with anxiety and depression. In a well-known study, night-eaters consumed 56 percent of their daily calories at night and woke up almost four times. The typical pattern: a trip to the bathroom followed by a visit to the fridge. Seek help: The problem has been treated with the anti-depressant Zoloft, and exposure to sunlight. Cognitive behavioral therapy can also work, according to some research.
- Keep binge foods out of the house. Avoiding temptation is a key self-control strategy.
- Make sure you get enough sleep. Fatigue and sleep-deprivation is associated with obesity all over the world.
- Increase the fiber and protein in your dinner, so you’ll feel full.
- Always eat sitting down at the table in the kitchen or dining room — not on the sofa or in bed while doing something else.
- Don’t starve yourself, by day or by night. If you’re truly hungry at night, eat a healthy snack (an apple, perhaps) rather than binging on the forbidden foods. Stop eating when you’re lightly satisfied, not stuffed.
- If you’re waking up from anxiety, filled with repetitive thoughts, try writing down your feelings. Just be sure not to beat up on yourself; instead show yourself the same kind of compassion you’d give a beloved friend.
- If you’ve had a frustrating day or evening, and crave a treat, go ahead and reward yourself — but not with food. Plan ahead by making a list of non-food indulgences. Take a hot bath, put on favorite music, call a friend, plan a vacation, or invite your spouse to trade massages or another pleasure.
June 17, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA