The Story of the Late Night Snacker

When I meet with patients who are looking to lose weight for reasons X, Y, or Z  one of my most valuable tools as an RD is conducting a thorough diet recall. Essentially I’ll start by asking them to tell me at what time they wake up, when and what is the first thing they eat, and so on and so forth. They’ll proceed to walk me through a typical day, uninterrupted, telling me about their meals and wrap up their story by saying, “See, I don’t eat that much” or “I feel like my meals are healthy, I just don’t get why I’m not losing weight”.

As an RD I know that asking them to walk me through their day once is never the end of their eating story. I’ll carefully revisit their day, asking for elaboration on brands, portion size, and timing, which usually reveals a bit more. Towards the end, almost as a sneak attack tactic, I ask about their drink and snack habits, which have conveniently been left out of their original telling of their story. At long last, I usually uncover their “zinger”, the answers to why weight loss has been so difficult!

photo by bethany newman

For many people, snacks between meals or after dinner aren’t considered “meals” and so are usually left out of their diet recalls. These ommissions happen either consciously or subconsciously for many reasons; however, it is often this habit of grazing, especially in the evening hours, that stalls weight loss goals. But rather than putting on the food police pants or laying down the dietitian iron-fist and banishing snacks forever, I gladly take the opportunity to provide some education on why late night snacking may be occurring and from there we can move forward and work together to change their story from one of late night snacker to balanced eater, which will help to move them in the direction of their weight loss goals.

This problem is not an uncommon one for patients in my clinic, nor for the athletes at Crossfit Soto, who have been submitting me fitness, but also food questions. Since it’s not completely workout related, I’m featuring this one athlete’s question as a non-Workout Wednesday post. They asked me:

I eat good meals all day long, then at night I’ll be watching tv and relaxing and before I know it I’ve eaten a bag of chips, or too much peanut/almond butter or my week’s worth of guac is gone…..I don’t even realize I’ve been eating it….

To this inquisitor, and for anyone who struggles with breaking the cycle of late night eating, allow me to shed some light on the situation.

First off, I feel it’s important to try to understand WHY this late night snacking is occurring. For many people, the answer is often that breakfast is overlooked as they rush out the door or my personal favorite line of, “I’ve just never been a breakfast eater” (me either folks, but have you seen my Instagram feed now? Breakfast fanatic over here, people). For others, the reason could be that their lunch was a skimpy low-carb salad or perhaps they did a post-work exercise class and forgot to fuel with an afternoon snack. As you can see, late night eats are usually the result of insufficient, unbalanced fueling throughout the day.

And the key word there really is balance, meaning a meal containing a large portion of fiber from vegetables or fruit (usually at breakfast), alongside moderate portions of whole grains and lean protein. A snack should apply the same principles and aim for well-roundedness to stave off hunger and boost your energy. If you’re on the ball with this, then your true hunger should pretty much be satisfied by the evening and a snack on the sofa isn’t even a thought.

an example of a balanced, healthy plate I use for patient education in my clinic

However, true biological hunger at night is not always the reason for that late night snack. Tapping into your emotional “hunger” can help to determine if your body is saying, “I need food” or “I need your attention”. Rebecca Scritchfield, author of the intuitive eating guidebook “Body Kindness” encourages you to use the HALT Method in such times. Hungry? Yep, go ahead and eat (more on what to choose in a bit). Angry, lonely, or tired (or any other emotion besides hunger)? Nope, don’t need to eat. Instead, work on finding other actions that pull you away from the fridge, such as doing some light stretching, sipping a mug of tea, organizing emails, or reading up on your favorite fitness or food blogs :) Using this intuitive eating strategy can help you become a more mindful eater and realize that bored eating might be a deeply ingrained habit for you.

In the end, if your tank is really running on empty and you don’t want to battle a grumbling tummy before bed, or it’s movie night with the family and a snack is routine, you can at least implement some strategies to rein in the grazing.

  • Choose a neutral snack, for example, an apple, or a small yogurt. These foods don’t scream “over-eat me!” and so it is easier to eat less of them, but still helps fill your hunger.
  • Try a voluminous snack like popcorn- 3 cups is 1 serving! Skip the butter and use seasonings such as cinnamon and turmeric, or black pepper and rosemary.
  • Portion out a single serving. Take a look at the serving size on the nutrition facts label and try to portion that out into a small bowl. This comes especially in handy for nut butters- 2 tablespoons (served with a fiber filled piece of fruit or a crisp bread) is plenty for a snack!
  • After having your single serving, it may be helpful to wash it down with a glass of water or tea, or brush your teeth the signal the end of eating for the night. No one wants to ruin a fresh minty palate!

As you can see, the story of the late night snacker is not one of poor willpower or a sweet tooth on steroids. Snacking is usually driven by irregular and unbalanced eating throughout the day, mindless emotionally-driven munching, or a combination of both.

To break this habit and gain control of your weight loss goals, or to simply feel more connected to your food choices, I recommend following the walk-through exercise outlined above, noting where your “skips” occur and figuring out ways to make your meals or snacks more complete. Becoming a more intuitive eater can allow anyone to rewrite their story as a more nutritious tale.



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