We’re here to bust a big nutrition myth that’s been flyin’ around the rumor mill in today’s blog.
And that rumor is that eating past a certain time at night inherently causes weight gain and that the calorie make-up of food increases every hour after dark.
To be quite frank, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Your body will not store extra fat if you eat past a certain time at night.
It’s not the WHEN that’s the issue.
It’s the WHAT & the HOW MUCH we tend to eat after dark where the issue lies.
I mean think about it, a banana will have the same caloric value no matter if you eat it at 8 PM or if you eat it at 8:02 PM. Moreover, the calorie make-up of foods will not change based on what time of the day food is consumed.
Today’s blog will not only debunk this myth that eating calories after dark causes weight gain, but also clar-e-fy where this myth came from & some ways for you to tackle any post-dinner snacking habits you might have.
So let’s dive into it!
How did this myth come about?
What do you think about when you think of after-dinner snacks or what we tend to eat the most after-dinner?
You’re probably thinking about ice cream, cookies, potato chips, or other higher-calorie/less nutrient-dense options and you’d be correct in thinking so! Because these foods are highly palatable (hard to stop eating), we tend to consume them in excess amounts. This is true even if we’ve already had dinner, or aren’t even really THAT hungry.
With that being said, it’s not the fact that having these foods past a certain time is causing weight-gain or the type of foods themselves, but the fact that these foods are being consumed in excess amounts AND the behaviors & habits associated with these foods that can lead to weight gain over time more often than not.
For instance, sometimes eating at night or after dinner is just a habit we’ve created once we sit down in front of the TV, or start scrolling through social media. If you normally have a bowl of ice cream or reach for the chips after dinner until you break that habit, you will continue to do it. Especially if you associate those foods with stress or boredom.
Also, decision fatigue is real! At the end of the day, it can be hard to choose the more nutrient-dense options instead of the quicker, easier, higher-calorie options if you haven’t had that much to eat that day, or don’t have any food prepped or ready-to-go for dinner. Because you're tired or stressed, you’re less likely to stop yourself from mindlessly overeating hyper-palatable foods.
Overconsuming snacks after dinner can put you out of the calorie deficit you’ve created for that day if you're dieting, or put you above your maintenance calories if you're maintaining.
Remember at the end of the day, your overall caloric intake is going to matter MORE than what time of day you consume your calories.
Refer to the hierarchy of nutrition here:
Calorie deficit = weight loss
Maintenance calories = maintain weight
Calorie surplus = weight gain, regardless of if you’re over-snacking at 9 AM or 9 PM.
We’re not saying you should do this, but basically, you could eat all of your calories for any given day at 9 PM every day and not gain fat as long as you’re eating at or below your maintenance calories. Note: we highly discourage this if you want to avoid digestive issues or being hangry throughout the entire day.
Alright so now that myth has been debunked, let’s discuss some strategies for those that struggle with late-night snacking and get to the root cause of why those after-dinner cravings could be occurring.
1. Eat enough food to support your needs.
If you're not eating enough food to support your activity levels throughout the day, snacking after dinner could be your body's way of compensating for a lack of nutrients.
If your body has been deprived of nutrients day in & out, late-night snacking could be an issue if your body is begging for fuel.
It’s also important to make sure your meals are well-balanced and each meal has a protein, carbohydrate, fat, and fruit or veggie present. Structuring your meals this way, or adding volume in the form of veggies/high-quality protein will keep you satiated and make it less likely post-meal snacking will occur.
Sometimes 200-300 calorie meals don’t cut it and probably won’t fill you up. If your meals are super low calorie or aren’t balanced try bulking up meals by
Adding nut butter, fruit, chia/hemp seeds, honey, granola to yogurt bowls/oats.
Adding quinoa, sweet/red/yellow potatoes, rice, chicken thighs, salmon, avocado, nuts/seeds, to your salads.
Adding a big ole’ side salad with all the veggies to meals without a veggie/fruit present.
Adding brown/white/wild rice to your meals instead of cauliflower rice.
You also might find prioritizing eating a balanced meal before bed to be helpful in mitigating after-dinner cravings. Eating 1-2 hours before bed is also associated with more restful sleep and ensures that a) your food is digested, b) you won't wake up in the middle of the night hungry, and c) you're already satisfied and less likely to reach for the cookies, chips, etc.
2. Eat regularly.
Make sure you have regular meals and snacks planned throughout the day so you’re not getting home from work or the gym and realizing you haven’t had enough to eat that day (helloooooo decision fatigue). Not being prepared or getting in satiating meals throughout the day can lead to mindless snacking after dinner because your body is hungry and needs fuel!
It can be 3 meals and 2 snacks, 4 meals and 1 snack, whatever fits into your schedule & is something you can consistently make a part of your routine. Some people prefer having bigger meals and more snacks, or smaller meals with more snacks, so it’s all about finding what works best for you.
If you find that having a snack after dinner works best for you, then go for it! Snacking isn't inherently bad, so plan/pre-log to make snacks you enjoy fit into your plan after dinner no matter what that snack is.
3. Audit your snack choices.
Be aware of the types of snacks your reaching for and see if there are better, more nutrient-dense options. For instance, you can swap regular potato chips for Quest protein chips or Lesser Evil popcorn.
Or if you have an after-dinner sweet tooth, have 2-3 squares of dark chocolate or try raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries in Greek yogurt with chocolate chips on top. You can even top some rice cakes with Greek yogurt and add fruit/chocolate chips for a yummy dessert.
Another option for you to consider is pre-portioning out your snacks so you're not mindlessly reaching into an endless bag of potato chips or ice cream tub. Not pre-portioning out your snack choices can lead to you eating the whole bag or tub without even meaning to.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, we’ve all been there, but by pre-logging your serving size and portioning that out into a bowl/snack bag you’re lessening the chance of accidentally overconsuming or snacking.
4. Get plenty of sleep.
If you track your biofeedback, you might notice you feel hungrier throughout the day if you didn't get enough sleep the night before. Totally normal.
This tip may seem less obvious, BUT studies have shown that lack of sleep increases our hunger hormone (ghrelin) and decreases our satiety hormone (leptin).
More sleep can provide a clear mind, more control around food choices, and healthy hormones. Most people should aim for 7-8 hours of sleep/night minimum. The more sleep the merrier though.
5. Examine your habits.
Have you ever sat down on the couch to watch TV or started scrolling through social media after dinner and thought “I could go for some (insert your favorite snack here) right now” ??
You might not actually be hungry but because you’ve created the habit of eating at the couch or while you’re on your phone after dinner, your mind & body will expect snacks at that time.
Just be aware of these habits and ask yourself if you're actually HUNGRY, or just instinctively reaching for snacks because that's what you always do at that time.
I recommend waiting at least 30 mins after the onset of cravings before reaching for your snack of choice. After that 30 mins have passed, if you’re still hungry, go for it. But waiting will ensure you’re not reaching for the chips based on learned behavior and you’re actually attempting to be in tune with your body’s hunger levels.
6. Identify your triggers.
Certain foods, situations, boredom, environments, or people can be a trigger for snacking, so it’s important to be aware of your feelings around these triggers.
For example, you might notice whenever you get anxious or stressed while working on a big school/work project, you’re inclined to reach for a snack even if you’ve eaten recently or aren’t hungry.
If you know that snacking is your coping mechanism for stress or certain negative feelings, find something else or someone else (maybe a licensed professional) that will help you.