Late night snacks

Don’t cheat—just change your late night snack options and fight those binges.

Woman eating from the refrigerator at night

The sun rises; you wake up in the morning and jump-start your day with a work out and a nutritious breakfast. You go about your day completely focussed. Then… as the day comes to a close a metamorphosis occurs. All healthy eating resolutions are forgotten and you’re consumed with a craving for potato chips, cookies, chocolates and candies.

Let’s admit it, we all cheat on our diet sometimes. Even with taking utmost care in choosing the right food in every meal, we fall culprit to ‘late night snacking.’ Probably because at that hour we’re too tired to cook up something nutritious for ourselves, or the fact that no one else is awake and around to catch us red-handed. Remember, those calories may be unaccounted for but they won’t go unnoticed on you. Metabolically, the energy spent by the body is reduced by night fall, but some calories are still burnt for basic functions like digestion and respiration. That’s why late night snacks coupled with the lowered satiety hormones may contribute to weight gain. What you eat is vital over when you eat. Overeating conditions the body to store extra food and fats as triglycerides [the storage form of fat].

Understanding the drawbacks and swapping calorie-laden snacks with alternative scrumptious yet healthy snacks is the solution to this predicament.

Why the late night pangs

Technically, a food craving is usually brought on by the nutrient demand of the body, to replenish its stores. A number of hormones like ghrelin and insulin heighten hunger. Inadequate sleep and restriction of food, further increase the production of these hormones. On the contrary, the hormone leptin suppresses hunger. Imbalance in any of these hormones may compromise food intake, influencing weight and overall wellbeing.

The urge to eat is not just physiological, but also psychological, that’s why sometimes it’s referred to as ‘emotional hunger.’ We often find temporary solace in glucose or fried/greasy foods—the so called ‘comfort foods’—every time we are trying to cope with negative feelings like sadness, anxiety, boredom, loneliness or depression. However, the predominant cause of emotional eating is stress. This being said, it’s important to note that flocking from one food to another can confuse our natural process of hunger and only add fat.

Detour the desire

Plan: People lack the time and effort to organise wholesome meals through the day and thus become ravenous by night. Eating too much late in the night sets off a chain reaction by reducing the appetite the next morning. Since you are not hungry enough, you skip breakfast and the saga continues. Make it a discipline to dedicate some time to plan the meals and stock up on groceries at the start of the week. This can help to control the binging at bedtime.

Balance: Every meal is important to strike a balanced diet plan. Skipping meals or refraining from an adequate dinner could set the stomach growling in the next couple of hours. In fact, incorporating different food groups of whole grains, beans and veggies intensifies nutrition and prolongs digestion, thereby delaying the urge to eat again.

The first meal: The thumb rule is to splurge in a wholesome breakfast, lest you may land up compensating at the end of the day in a nocturnal feast. Follow the famous adage, ‘Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.’ But also let your common sense guide you. For instance, if you haven’t had the time to eat well at breakfast or lunch, and had planned a light dinner, change your plans. If you’re very hungry, you rather eat well at dinner than wake up a few hours into the night, rampaging your refrigerator.

Low calorie snacking options

When one burns the midnight oil either for work or recreation and cannot resist the allure of the grub, honing the food choices is imperative. Nutrient dense foods are a great choice to satiate hunger. Be watchful and aim for low calorie snacks such as:

  • 1 cup mixed fruits
  • 1 cup fruit smoothie with dairy products
  • 1 cracker with 1 tsp fat-free cheese
  • 1 wheat khakra with 1 tsp low fat peanut butter
  • 1 cup popcorn
  • 2 – 3 squares dark chocolate
  • A fist full of mixed nuts: almonds/walnuts/peanuts/hazelnuts
  • 1 roasted papad with 1 tbsp salsa sauce
  • 1 cup tomato soup
  • 1 cup muesli
  • 1 glass ice tea or a cup of skim milk.

Awareness: Train the mind to constantly be aware while eating to avoid unnecessary calories. Eating or sharing directly from a packet while surfing the net or over a favourite movie can be disastrous for your BMI. Even after dinner if you ‘feel’ you haven’t had enough or are dissatisfied, drink a glass of milk or have a fruit before you retire.

Ditch carbs: Refrain from refined cereals and choose complex carbohydrates.  The important trick to combat appetite is to reduce calories yet increase its satiety value. In simple words, substitute a serving of carb with lean protein [skim milk and curd, low fat or fat free cheese, fatty fish, turkey, dressed chicken, egg whites] and fibre found in colourful fruits and vegetables. Keep healthy and ready-to-eat snacks handy in the kitchen.

Time gap: Small frequent meals throughout the day with a gap of 2 – 3 hours in between accelerate the metabolism and prevent overeating. Allow for adequate time of at least an hour after dinner, before you hit the sack. But again, don’t allow too much time between your dinner and bed-time. If you do so, there are high chances that you’ll feel hungry again. If you know that you may have to stay up late, have a snack in the evening and eat your dinner a bit later than usual.

Hydrate: Very often, thirst is mistaken for hunger.  Most times, drinking a glass of plain water is the easiest and most effective way to suffice this feeling.

Storage: Stacking chips and cookies in high cupboards or not so easily accessible places is a simple tip for any diet cheater. It can help to dissuade you from reaching out to those foods often. Once you’ve had your meal and are ready to retire brush and floss your teeth. If any cravings do come up later, this may just work as a deterrent.

Revamp routine: To streamline a routine is a great quick fix. Some evening yoga, meditation, or exercise with early sleep schedules will help cut back on unnecessary caloric intake and help maintain weight.

This was first published in the December 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Geetha G H
Geetha is a Bangalore based registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, exercise-sports nutritionist, with diverse experience of 14 years in academia, nutritional counselling, lifestyle coaching, clinical nutrition, food safety, corporate workshops and seminars, clinical research. She is also a nutrition columnist, a university first ranker with several gold medals for under graduation and post-graduation, passionate about yoga, preventive and performance nutrition. Geetha is currently pursuing International Olympic Committee Sports nutrition.

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