Before we dig in, let’s talk about the title of this article: it’s “overeating,” not “eating”.
In itself, eating at night is a non-issue when it comes to fat loss.
Total calories are the primary driver of fat loss and gain, not what time you eat them, and avoiding food after a certain hour is an unnecessary stressor for most people.
But nighttime overeating, by which I mean eating enough to put you in a calorie surplus (eating more than you burn), can absolutely lead to fat gain.
If you’re reading this article, chances are you know what kind of eating I’m talking about. You finish dinner at 7:00 PM, then get hungry again around 9:00 PM while watching TV. A few Oreos turns into a full sleeve, and before you know it, you’re neck-deep in Pop-Tart wrappers.
You’re left thinking, “What the hell is wrong with me?”
Nothing, actually. Your issue wasn’t a lack of self-control. It’s a lack of preparation and proactivity, so check out these six steps to make sure you’re prepared when your next craving hits.
1. Go to Bed Earlier
Very few of us are actually productive after dinnertime. Is there really a need to be up several hours beyond that?
If you don’t think you can fall asleep earlier, that needs to become your top priority. If you’re asleep, you quite literally don’t give yourself the chance to overeat.
As painfully obvious as that sounds, it’s often never addressed. We continue to stay up, watching Netflix and checking email, wondering how on earth we struggle with late night snacking.
Here are some ways to improve your sleep habits and quality:
- Develop a consistent bedtime ritual.
- Leave electronics out of your room.
- Make sure your room is blacked out.
- Keep your room relatively cool (65-70 degrees).
If you’ve been crashing at 2:00 AM, don’t try to radically change yours sleep habits right away. Using these strategies, try hitting the hay earlier over time.
The end goal should be 11:00 PM or earlier. It’s also important to note that adequate sleep also minimizes next-day cravings.
2. Have a More Filling Dinner
If you’re hungry all of seven and a half minutes after dinner, it’s not a cravings issue. It’s a meal composition issue.
Significantly upping your protein and vegetable intake will leave you feeling full for hours.
Aim for 30-40 grams of protein and 1-2 servings of vegetables for dinner. This is a minimum goal, and even more can be helpful.
I find a stir fry to be one of the easiest ways to satisfy that goal. Prep some meat (chicken, lean ground beef, etc.), prep some vegetables (broccoli, zucchini, squash, peppers, onions), and mix them together. Add a little stir fry sauce or olive oil, and you’re good to go.
If you still find yourself hungry after a dinner like this, reassess your protein intake as a whole. You’re probably falling short well before dinner.
You can also push back your dinner to a reasonably late time, which will help you avoid going to bed starving. Also, it’s good to note that eating too close to bed (<60 minutes) can negatively impact sleep.
3. Keep Food Out of Sight
After dinner is over, shut down the kitchen for the night.
If you have treats on the counter, staring you in the face while you’re watching TV, you’re going to cave. You’re human.
I’m personally guilty of grabbing cashews every time I leave them out. During each commercial, I’ll snag a few more. A couple handfuls later, I’m 500+ calories deep—without actually being hungry for them.
Avoid having snackable food on the counter, island, or top of your fridge. Put everything away before leaving the kitchen. It’s natural to want to pick into food that’s right in front of us.
Don’t give yourself that temptation.
4. Have a Low-Calorie Snack
As mentioned, eating at night is a non-issue for fat loss. However, eating too many calories is. Having a lower calorie food choice can be a perfectly viable late night snack.
You can try snacks like:
- Cottage cheese
- Non-fat Greek yogurt
- Vegetables (baby carrots, cucumbers, celery)
- Low-fat cheese sticks
- Fruit (apples, bananas, blueberries)
- Leftovers from dinner
- Nuts (cashews, almonds, peanuts)(With fat loss goals, you’ll probably want to limit your portions here.)
That being said, there’s nothing wrong with having some treats, too. As long as nutritious foods make up most of your calories, there’s nothing wrong with having some fun foods in moderation.
You can go as far as leaving 10% of your daily calories for an enjoyable nighttime snack. Nutritious or not, you’ll still make fat loss progress if calories are accounted for.
5. Leave No Room For Failure
Very, very few of us have the willpower to sit on the couch—especially late at night—and not be tempted by snack food.
The painfully obvious, but also ignored solution: stop bringing that shit home.
You have to give yourself a fighting chance at success. It’s nearly impossible to stay on track with cookies in the cabinets, chips on the table, and ice cream in the freezer.
It’s important to enjoy all these foods from time to time, for the sake of balance and sustainability. But let those times be away from home. Your environment makes all the difference.
If you have a significant other or child who “needs” their snacks, consider bringing home single-serving options. That way, even if you do slip up, you won’t end up looking at the bottom of a gallon of ice cream.
6. Reassess The Cause (And Be Proactive)
Sometimes nighttime overeating has nothing to with hunger. Sometimes it’s the symptom of a bigger problem, like depriving yourself on a diet.
If you try to lose fat by “completely cutting out all the unhealthy stuff,” you’re making a mistake. Regularly incorporating your favorite treats, in moderation, will prevent feelings of underlying deprivation that can cause late night overeating.
Your late night overeating could also be emotionally based.
If you think this may be the case, it’s important to develop self-awareness. If you’re eating because of stress or anxiety, overeating will make those feelings worse. Figure out the root cause of your emotional turmoil and replace your negative coping behavior (overeating) with a positive one (exercise, reading, meditation, etc.).
Finally, if you slip up, remember to quickly forgive yourself and get back to business.
A few times won’t affect your long-term progress.
What will affect your overall progress is letting one mistake turn into two, three, four, etc. Fat loss doesn’t require perfection; it requires consistency.
Take these steps to avoid nighttime overeating, but when it inevitably happens, don’t stress out. Know that a single night of overeating means nothing in the grand scheme of things. Just get back on track the very next morning, and you’ll be good.