Long after the sun goes down, when most people are headed for sleep, some put their good eating habits to bed instead and awaken the nighttime nibbler within.
Yet, as satisfying as these midnight refrigerator raids may be, experts warn that post-dinner snack attacks can signal the start of a vicious cycle of weight gain.
"My busy schedule forced me to serve dinner twice a night, one for the kids, the other for my husband. I would eat again with him after picking at the food when I got home," confesses one late-night eater. "Afterwards there would be leftovers and I would feel bad so I would eat a little more while cleaning up."
Some people eat most of their calories at night for any and every reason — except for actually being hungry. For emotional eaters, midnight snacking may be a response to feeling stressed, bored or lonely.
For others, "who have finished their daily duties and are relaxing at home, snacking is giving in to a normal urge," says Dr. Donald Hensrud, associate professor of preventive medicine and nutrition at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "And, when there is little reason to put the brakes on, it is easy to eat quite a lot."
Something as simple as spending too much time in the kitchen — the home of the refrigerator — may tempt you to start snacking.
"Frequently people eat while standing at the refrigerator door. Because they don't put the food on the plate, they tend to eat more, feel satisfied less, and lose track of how much they have actually eaten," says Tammy Baker, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association in Chicago.
Late Night Snacking Increases Total Calorie Intake
As diet experts explain it, weight loss, gain, or stabilization is based on total calories consumed per day vs. the amount of energy burned. Therefore, "late-night snacking is a bad habit simply because it increases total calorie intake," says Hensrud. "A calorie is a calorie is a calorie no matter when it is consumed."
And make no mistake, those calories do add up. "Just an added 300 calories in the evening after dinner while watching TV — when you're not even hungry — will pack on 30 pounds in one year," cautions Katherine Tallmadge, another spokeswoman for the the American Dietetic Association.
But the reverse is true as well — cut out that evening snack altogether and you might lose 30 pounds in one year. Change it to fruit and lose 20 pounds in a year. "It's the small, easy changes you make in eating that have the most dramatic and lasting effects," says Tallmadge.
And remember that regularly eating at dark initiates a vicious cycle. If you go to sleep full, you wake up fuller that you might have been otherwise. In response, you skip breakfast, which drives you to eat more later in the day. For some, this may mean the largest meal of the day occurs in the evening.
So how can you avoid potato chips with your favorite television show? Experts offer some tips for conquering those late-night cravings:
Eat more at other times. To prevent bingeing at night, experts recommend increasing the size of breakfast and lunch. This helps spread your calories throughout the day and prevents trying to compensate for the day's calories at night.
"Blood sugar that drops after long periods of not eating can contribute to overeating at night, so balancing intake throughout the day is important to keep your metabolism and energy levels up," says Baker.
Keep a diary. Record all food consumed for at least a week to determine the number of calories you are consuming daily.
"Having the amount of food consumed staring back at you can be a sobering realization," says Hensrud. From here, gradually begin to decrease the number of snacks eaten per night.
Plan a healthy late-evening snack. If snacking at night is a regular routine, "planning an evening snack is the easiest way to get eating back under control and the easiest way to control the size of the snack," says Baker.
In the evening, people tend to eat more snack foods, higher-fat foods, and larger portions. Instead, opt for something low-fat that digests easily, such as microwave popcorn, a glass of milk, fruit, hard candy, or even a fudge Popsicle. These will satisfy your craving, whether it's for something salty or sweet.
Other healthy but filling options include crackers with peanut butter; yogurt and fruit; a small salad with a slice of whole grain bread; low-fat frozen yogurt topped with fruit; or bean dip with baked tortilla chips.
Change your routine. "Many night snackers are in the habit of eating at night, and this is what drives them to continue eating," says Jeff Hampl, assistant professor at Arizona Sate University in Tempe, Ariz., and a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association.
To conquer the habit, Hampl recommends substituting non-food rewards, such as taking a bubble bath or going for a moonlit walk. Just make sure the walk's not to a late-night fast food restaurant.
Terri Russell of ABC affiliate KOLO in Reno, Nev., contributed to this report.