How to Stop Eating at Night
Easy ways to break the habit once and for all (and maybe lose some weight)
Whether it’s a long-standing habit or a routine picked up during the pandemic lockdowns, more than 60 percent of Americans ages 18 to 80 report snacking after 8 p.m., according to a 2021 International Food Information Council survey.
And it may be harming their health. Studies suggest that nighttime eating can lead to higher cholesterol and blood glucose levels, as well as weight gain.
One reason may be that people unconsciously gravitate toward higher calorie foods at night, such as cake or chips, says Kelly Allison, PhD, director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania. But it also may be due to our circadian rhythms, or the biological clock that tells our bodies when to be awake and when to sleep.
“Our bodies are really designed to digest and metabolize food more efficiently earlier in the day,” she explains.
If you’re wedded to a nighttime snack, you don’t have to give it up entirely, Allison says. But there are smart steps you can take to rein in night eating, most of which call for just small tweaks—not major overhauls. Here are eight suggestions.
Prioritize Daytime Eating
People who start eating before 8:30 a.m. have lower blood sugar levels and less insulin resistance, which could reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to a Northwestern study presented in March at the Endocrine Society’s 2021 annual meeting.
This was true whether they ate only within a 10-hour window or for more than 13 hours each day. And a 2018 study published in the journal Cell Metabolism found that men with pre-diabetes who ate between the hours of 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. had lower insulin levels and better blood pressure, as well as significantly decreased appetite.
Keep a Food Journal
Tracking your eating for a few days can help you spot patterns.
“It’s easy for people who are very busy to go for hours during the day without eating anything,” says psychologist Marney White, PhD, MS, associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health.
When things slow down in the evening and you finally do sit down to eat, you may be so starving that you have a loss of control and overeat at night.
A bonus: A food diary can help with weight loss by holding you accountable. A 2019 study published in the journal Obesity found that people who carefully logged what they ate lost up to 10 percent of their body weight over a six-month period.
Schedule Your Meals and Snacks
Set up an eating schedule, where you consume a small meal or snack every 2 to 3 hours during the day, White advises. When you eat frequently, it helps keep your blood sugar stable and staves off hunger.
Also, “when you get into a regular pattern, it retrains your body into natural cues of hunger and satiety, so you can consume the bulk of your calories during the day,” she says.
Pump Up Your Protein
A higher-protein diet has been linked to reduced hunger and less desire to overeat in the evenings. To make sure you get enough, try to have a mix of protein, carbohydrate, and healthy fat at each meal or snack, advises Debbie Petitpain, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Think 4 ounces of grilled salmon with a side of veggies drizzled in olive oil for dinner, or a banana with nut butter for a snack.
If you tend to nosh as you sit on your couch and watch TV or read at night, you’ll automatically associate nighttime eating with those activities, White says. Just doing the activity may trigger the desire for a snack, even if you aren’t really hungry.
To halt the habit, White recommends that if you do have an evening snack, you keep it completely separate from other after-dinner activities.
“Sit down at your kitchen table with some soft music in the background and really focus on what you are eating,” she advises.
This promotes mindfulness, which research suggests can help prevent overeating. It’s also a good idea to make your evening snack something that requires silverware, Petitpain says: “If you’re using a fork or spoon, you’re less likely to mindlessly eat than if you’re munching on something that comes straight out of a bag.”
Keep Your Hands Busy
“If your hands are occupied, you can’t eat," Petitpain says. Playing cards, working on a puzzle, knitting/crocheting, or even giving yourself a manicure all fit the bill, but it can even be something as boring as folding laundry while you watch TV, she says.
Get to Bed an Hour Earlier
Research has long shown an association between lack of sleep and weight gain. When you’re sleep deprived, your body pumps out higher levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin and lower levels of the satiety-inducing hormone leptin, which promotes overeating, Allison says.
“We also know that people who eat at night have lower sleep efficiency, which means they don’t get the quality sleep they need.”
This in turn can cause a vicious cycle that leads to overeating, especially at night, when you’re tired and more vulnerable to poor food decisions. Getting more sleep won’t just help restore your ghrelin and leptin levels. If you’re in bed, you’ll have less nocturnal time to nosh.
Don't Beat Yourself Up
Sometimes, despite all your best efforts, you’ll end up devouring a cookie. Or two. Or three.
“The first thought that often comes into people’s heads is, ‘oh no, I blew it,’” White says. “But that type of thinking can set the stage for disordered eating in the long term.”
An occasional treat isn’t likely to do any harm to your waistline or overall health, White says, and may ultimately help because you won’t feel deprived. After you’ve had your snack, put the bag or box away on the top shelf of your pantry and go about your normal nighttime routine. After all, tomorrow is another day.