Late-night snacking has a bad reputation because it’s often associated with less healthy foods, weight gain or a lack of willpower. But many people report engaging in this behavior. So what should you do when your stomach growls late at night? Fight it off and hope the hunger goes away? Or give in, only to beat yourself up about it later? Although these can feel like the only two options, they don’t have to be. Let’s talk about a few late-night snacking myths and what we can do to develop healthier after-hours eating habits.
Myth: Late-night snacking leads to weight gain.
A long-held belief about late-night snacking is that it leads to weight gain. Yet studies show many factors contribute to changes in body weight, and there is no correlation between eating late at night and gaining weight. While it’s certainly possible for people to eat more calorie-dense foods late at night, which may contribute to weight gain, overeating can happen any time of day.
Myth: If you snack late at night, it’s because you lack willpower.
People often feel shame about eating late at night, but nighttime snacking doesn’t happen simply because you lack willpower—many factors, including calorie deprivation during the day, can play a role. When we restrict our food intake, we’re more likely to overeat.
A possible solution? Try eating meals and snacks (that contain a mix of macronutrients) consistently throughout the day. And if you still feel hungry late at night, give yourself a break. Your body may be telling you that it needs more energy to finish out the day.
Myth: Nighttime eating is bad and should be avoided always.
Viewing meals and snacks as “good” or “bad” is rarely helpful in cultivating a healthy relationship with food. It’s possible that some people snack late at night to cope with negative emotions, but those instances should be addressed with self-compassion, not criticism. Practicing mindfulness may help us gain awareness of what and why we’re eating. Journaling upsetting or stressful situations may help us recognize when we’re more likely to snack emotionally late at night. It’s worth noting that emotional eating is not inherently bad, but it shouldn’t be the only way you cope with hard emotions.
Late-Night Snacking Tips
Regardless of why you might be snacking late at night, here are a few tips for making this eating occasion a more satisfying and healthful experience.
- Check in with your hunger
It’s helpful to get in tune with your body’s hunger signals to figure out when and how much to eat. Use our hunger scale to help evaluate your hunger. After a few bites, pay attention to how you feel. Are you feeling your hunger subside? Are you getting closer to being satisfied? Remember, the goal is not to perfectly gauge your hunger, just to be more aware of it.
- Multiple macronutrients
Satiety can be defined as “being satisfied with our food intake or feeling as though we have eaten ‘enough,’” but research on how to make an eating occasion satiating is not crystal clear. Still, some research shows that combining protein and fiber can lead to greater feelings of satiety, so it may be helpful to include these two nutrients when building a late-night snack. A few examples include: a banana with peanut butter, a handful of nuts and a cheese stick or a piece of dark chocolate and a few whole grain crackers.
- Be Mindful
Sometimes late-night snacking is accompanied by a distraction, such as a movie or social media. Limiting distractions can help us practice mindful eating, which can lead to a greater awareness of what and why we’re eating. For example, instead of reaching for the whole bag of chips, try pouring out a handful and checking in with your hunger before automatically grabbing more.
This article includes contributions from Kris Sollid, RD.