Boogie Monsters: Taking the Fear out of Nighttime Munchies

In 2000, Sal and I lived in a flat across the street from Ocean Beach in San Francisco.  It was the heyday, just before the crash really took hold (and tossed us out on our ear, mind you).  As I watched the Tour de France, I picked up my cell phone, called up Kozmo delivery service and asked them to please deliver a six pack of beer, a pint of Ben N Jerry’s, and a fitness magazine.

Ahhhh, those were the days.  If it wasn’t Kozmo delivered ice cream, it was Totino’s pizza bites by the handful.

I was a sucker for the nighttime munchies.  They killed me. 

Still do every once in a while.  And I’m pretty sure I"m not alone.

So this blog entry is dedicated to some thoughts and strategies about dealing with nighttime eating.

Here’s the scene.  You wake up, eat breakfast.  Wait 5 hours, eat lunch.  Wait another 5 or 6 hours, eat dinner.  Then, 4 or 5 hours later you’re suddenly hungry.  Really hungry.  Well… duh.  Of course you are.  Even though you’ve already eaten your allotted calories for the day, you’re body is primed for more food. 

Besides that, at night we typically engage in wind-down activities like reading books, or computer work, or tv-watching.  Sitting around makes you become aware of your hunger even faster.  TV is the worst what with all the visual stimulation programming you to be the best little consumer you can be.  They may be selling you cars and cameras – but that translates into all kinds of hunger, I promise you.

I digress.  My points here are two:

  1. If you are still eating plain old three meals a day then, chances are, you get the nighttime munchies because you are actually hungry.  Your body is programmed to expect large meals every 5-6 hours.  It’s time.
  2. Maybe you’re not really hungry (you’ve had a good post-dinner snack.  You can’t justify wanting the food.  You want really bad crap – like ice cream or tons of carbs.)  This is different.

The most important thing that I can say that will likely address both these situations is eat early and eat often.  If you start eating more frequently throughout the day, you’ll experience a whole bunch of benefits (increased metabolism, more stable blood sugar levels, increased energy, generally increased sensation of satiation, better food selection) not the least of which is, you will be perfectly set up to eat a completely justified meal at night.

The idea that eating at night is bad for you is pretty out-dated, and a lot of leading nutritionists and dietitians no longer believe that its a hard and fast rule.  Sure, if you eat your day’s allotment of calories in three big meals and THEN eat more on top of that at night, it’s going to hurt you.  But eating at night, per se, is not necessarily bad for you.

It comes down to what you eat, and what your daily caloric total is – are you meeting it with that last meal of the day, or are you exceeding it?

As soon as I started eating five meals a day instead of three, my nighttime demons disappeared almost completely.  I simply didn’t have the same kind of cravings.  I felt full and content all the time. 

Better still?  I’ve currently got my nighttime snack factored into my total caloric intake.  I eat small meals that average 300 calories 6 times per day:  7am, 10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, 9-10pm.  I have to tell you… sometimes that last meal is REALLY hard to fit in.

I usually do a protein shake, but when I’m feeling like I need an extra-special treat, I make it a double serving of Sugar-Free, Fat-Free Chocolate Pudding with a scoop of Jay Robb Chocolate Whey Isolate mixed in (178cal, 17g carb, 0 fat, 26g protein).  It’s not the perfect meal, but it’s pretty damn good, and it makes me feel like I’m getting away with something.

Some of you might be thinking, "Yeah, but doesn’t that just sit in your gut and turn into fat because you’re not doing anything while you’re sleeping?" 

Not really.  The body still gets things done while you’re sleeping.  Just not as much, and not as fast.  However, a huge part of what goes on in the middle of the night is muscle repair.  Protein (especially milk protein because it takes longer to process and therefore feeds your muscles for a longer period during the night) is great for this.  And 17 grams of carbs is not going to kill me.  Another great nighttime mini-meal is a serving of cottage cheese (milk protein again!). 

The other strategy that I find works really well is drinking hot tea.  It’s calming (go herbal at night, yo), it’s filling, and it’s cozy.  It’s definitely one of the "triggers" that I use to let my body know it’s time to start thinking about powering down.  A sugar-free, fat-free hot cocoa mix could work too, if you really can’t stand tea, but you’re not getting all the great benefits that tea has to offer.  Heck, you could probably even just drink warm milk if you’re 2 years old and into that kind of thing :).

Here’s a re-cap, and a few other tips for dealing with cravings and nighttime munchies:

  1. Don’t be afraid of them.  Instead, factor them in.  Plan for them.  Then just make sure that your late night meal is a quality one.
  2. Switch to 5-6 small meals per day. You’ll feel fuller longer, and it will be easier to factor in that evening snack.
  3. Plan ahead: have some healthy options around.  In the summer I love frozen blueberries or Maggie Wang’s protein fudgesicles
  4. If you haven’t planned for the night calories, and you’re really struggling with a craving, take 5 minutes to write down your thoughts about the cravings – why you want it… ok, now why you REALLY want it.  Be honest, be funny, whatever.  Writing it down will make you think about it more.  Seeing the words on paper will make lame excuses brutally apparent.
  5. Start with a glass of water.  You always need more water, right? Drink a glass and promise yourself to wait 10 minutes.  Both the time to think, and the water in your belly may help you push through.
  6. Go in with your eyes wide open… if you decide to eat something, pull up Sparkpeople or FitDay quickly and use their nutrition trackers to see what kind of damage you’re really doing.  Sometimes a small dose of reality is all we need to shake us back into our right minds and help us make healthier decisions.
  7. Suck a lemon.  Ha ha.  I’m kidding – but seriously, I saw this somewhere once as a nighttime eating strategy.  It seems a little ridiculous, and a little extreme but, hey, don’t knock it til you try it, right? ;)

What about you?  How do you deal with your cravings at night? 


PS – Big thanks to Ed for inspiring this discussion with his comment on my willpower post from December 10th.

PPS – Life is busy. Things get crazy. I love my readers and don’t want you to miss out on anything. If you enjoy reading, consider subscribing for updates delivered to your inbox every 2 or 3 weeks, along with occasional exclusive content that won’t be posted to the blog.  Also, if you have a question, please contact me with it.  I’d love to hear what’s on your mind. heidiswift (at) gmail (dot) com


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  1. Eating at night is definitely my biggest problem (as I try to hide the tub of chocolate mint cookies “cheers” behind the lamp). But tonight is a perfect example…I often work late, I didn’t get onto my trainer until 7pm. So I ate dinner at 9pm, had some (ok, a lot…) of dessert, and now it’s almost 10pm and time to go to bed. I really make myself insane, especially since I wasn’t even hungry to begin with (I definitely eat early and very often). I probably could have pretty much skipped dinner all together, but in my mind it’s “dinner time” and I find it nearly impossible to not eat. AHH! I hate eating dinner at 9pm, but I do it almost every day. So much for not eating 3 hours before bed…try 20 mins. :)

  2. Kristen, I hear you!
    Last night I worked late, too. I had my “dinner” at about 8:30pm as well. I didn’t worry about it, however, because I knew exactly where I already stood for the day:

    1329 calories
    87g carbs
    35g fat
    153g protein

    This meant I still had about 500 calories to go for the day, it also showed me that I couldn’t afford to eat very much more fat, so I planned my meal accordingly and made a huge spinach/arugula salad topped with grilled chicken and a lowfat honey-chile reduction sauce that I’d made. (Garnished with cilantro!)

    Tracking is a huge help with all kinds of food-related sticking points. It really helps me see clearly into my intake.

    The other point I’d make about eating early and often is that, unless you plan your meals out ahead of time, this concept often turns into “grazing” for people. Grazing is totally different. I don’t touch anything between my 10am and 1pm meal because a handful of “whatever” from the break room can translate into 100-200 calories that I didn’t count on (and they’re usually crap calories with little food value).

    It’s also essential that your mini-meals are balanced according to your own chosen ratio of macronutrients, so, if you decided to eat 40% carbs, 30% protein and 30% fat (I think this is a really balance ratio for most people) then mini-meals should reflect that. Eating carbs, fat, and protein together at the same time has a lot of benefits… fat makes you feel full longer, etc.

    Aside from all this crap, it seems like doing the “eyes wide open” strategy of quickly looking up nutritional information might help you with the super late night desserts!

    Keep killin’ it, super biker woman!

  3. “I don’t touch anything between my 10am and 1pm meal because a handful of “whatever” from the break room can translate into 100-200 calories that I didn’t count on”

    Heh, yeah I was doing really good for a while using keeping track very closely. And that really helped me lose weight…then life got in the way for a while. My office keeps almonds, peanuts, raisins, and craisons in the kitchen, which are definitely not the worst snacks in the world, but taking 3-4 handfuls of nuts and dried fruit through the day is a LOT of calories. Time to get back on track.

    Btw, I would love to hear more about your bodpod hookup. Sounds very useful… I need something brutally honest right now.:)

  4. My breakroom had the same thing! And baked pita chips… they sound healthy until you eat half a bag. I used to walk in there to “get my creative juices flowing again” – it killed me. I’ll email ya Mr. Bod Pod.

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