Late-Night Snacking: What Triggers the Urge to Snack at Night?

Late-Night Snacking: What Triggers the Urge to Snack at Night?

(Last Updated On: March 28, 2019)

Late-Night Snacking: What Triggers the Urge to Snack at Night?

It’s almost bedtime, you’re tired and ready to turn in for the night, yet you’re irresistibly drawn to the kitchen for a late night snack. So you mosey to the kitchen to see what’s in the fridge. Does this ever happen to you?  For some people, opening the refrigerator and nibbling is the last thing they do before turning off the light. To make matters worse, they’re usually NOT noshing on low-calorie foods. Why is late-night snacking so common?

Late-Night Snacking: Cravings versus Hunger: They’re Not the Same Thing

Ask people why they’re raiding the refrigerator at bedtime and they’ll blame it on hunger. Keep in mind that hunger and cravings are two entirely different animals. Hunger is a physical need for nourishment prompted by low-energy stores. Cravings are psychologically motivated and usually have an underlying emotional component.

Women suffer from late-night snacking syndrome more than men, but also have different preferences for their late-night nibbles. Women gravitate towards sweet foods, including chocolate, while men are more likely to eye something salty like pretzels or popcorn or snack options that require some preparation like pizza or even a steak.

Late-Night Snacking: Why Are Late-Night Cravings So Common?

A number of theories have been proposed about why people like to snack in the evening. Stress and boredom are two factors that motivate some guys and gals to make a nightly pilgrimage to the kitchen, but a new study published in the journal Obesity points out another factor – circadian rhythms dictated by our internal biological clock. These internal rhythms that control a variety of bodily functions may propel us to eat before bedtime too.

According to this study, humans are evolutionarily programmed to eat at night to maximize energy storage should lean times arise. These days it’s not lack of sustenance most people have to worry about, but an overabundance of high-calorie foods with little nutritional value.

Ever notice how you don’t feel hungry when you first wake up in the morning? That too seems to be a product of circadian rhythms being set to maximize the desire to eat towards the evening rather than the morning hours.

Late-Night Snacking: Does Eating at Night Make You Fat?

Dieticians often tell clients not to snack after dinner and to avoid eating for 3 or 4 hours prior to bedtime. Is there any scientific basis for this? In terms of weight gain, it’s not clear whether eating at night is more likely to fatten you up. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a link between eating after dinner and weight gain, but a number of studies fail to show this. Most studies show eating after dinner is not strongly linked with weight gain unless you consume more calories than you expend.

On the other hand, a certain percentage of the population are nighttime binge eaters and consume the majority of their calories after dinner. Such bingeing is more common in people who are emotional eaters and those who don’t eat enough throughout the day to meet their energy requirements.

One concern is that eating at night elevates insulin at a time when you’re least active. As you know, insulin promotes fat storage. Unfortunately, it’s challenging to design a study that takes into account the effects of both calories and dietary composition on weight gain. Eating a bowl of spinach versus a doughnut will have a very different effect on your blood sugar and insulin level. If you chow down on sugary foods an hour before sleep, your liver converts the sugar in your bloodstream to triglycerides, which end up being stored as fat, if you’re inactive. One study showing eating at night reduced fat oxidation, meaning you’re less likely to burn off those storage triglycerides, the jiggly stuff we know as fat.

 Late-Night Snacking: Reigning in Those Cravings

Fortunately, there are things you can do to keep those after-dinner nibbles from getting out of control or controlling you.  A study carried out at the University of Missouri-Columbia showed participants who started the day with a high-protein breakfast were less likely to wrestle with late-night cravings. Breakfast eaters also had lower levels of appetite hormones that might set off those nighttime cravings. Eating protein at breakfast and throughout the day is a good strategy anyway because of protein’s role in maximizing satiety, so you don’t feel the urge to snack.

Late-night snacking can also interfere with sleep. Even one night of poor-quality sleep can elevate cortisol, a hormone that triggers sugar cravings, and ghrelin, one of your body’s “master” appetite hormones. A number of studies show getting adequate sleep is important for weight control AND for overall health. Plus, when you’re sleep deprived you’re more likely to make poor dietary selections. One study showed a sleep-deprived brain is more likely to choose high-carb snacks.

Late-Night Snacking: Find Something Else to Do

Most people snack to relieve stress or boredom – not out of hunger. Find something relaxing to do at night that’ll keep you out of the kitchen. How about taking a warm, scented bath instead? Do some yoga poses, stretches or spend time meditating or listening to soothing music to prepare for sleep. Take the dog for a relaxing walk or play with your kids. Find something to replace the after-hours snack habit.

The Bottom Line

It’s okay to snack, especially if you’re choosing healthy, high-protein munchies, but don’t venture too deeply into the late-night snack zone. Think about WHY you’re eating at night and whether issues other than hunger are motivating you. If you do have a snack, choose one high in protein and fiber rather than something high in sugar.

 

References:

Int. J. Eat. Disord. 2001 Mar; 29(2): 195-204.

Am J Clin Nutr 2013;97:677-88. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.053116

Northwestern University. “Late-night Snacks: Worse Than You Think”

Am J Clin Nutr October 2008 vol. 88 no. 4 900-905.

Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2013 Jan 15;304(2):R94-R101. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.00115.2012. Epub 2012 Nov 21.

Am J Epidemiol. 2006 Nov 15;164(10):947-54. Epub 2006 Aug 16.

PLoS Med. 2004 Dec;1(3):e62. Epub 2004 Dec 7.

WebMD. “Sleep More, Weigh Less”

 

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