Nutrition Articles

Is Evening Eating Destroying Your Weight Loss Efforts?

Cues to Eating and How to Control Them

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Balanced breakfast? Check
Mid-morning snack? Check
Healthy lunch with your co-workers? Check
Passing up your friend's homemade cookies? Check
Coming home in the evening and going on a feeding frenzy? CHECK!!

Does this sound like the bulk of your days? You're in control, everything is going fine - until you come home starving at night and eat a large dinner, say yes to dessert (and seconds) and finish off a bag of chips before bed. What gives?

From a metabolic standpoint, there is really no reason not to eat food in the evening. A calorie is a calorie regardless of when it is consumed. A morning calorie is metabolized in basically the same way as an evening calorie. However, eating in the evening is a problem for many, not because of the way food is metabolized, but because of the quantity of food that is often eaten.

Skipping meals and becoming overly hungry by evening can lead to nighttime binge eating. Recent studies revealed that when people ate three meals a day only 13% binged. When people skipped breakfast, 24% binged and when people skipped breakfast and lunch, 60% binged. In general, people who spread their meals throughout the day seem to be better able to control their eating. They are less likely to feel hungry and less likely to overeat. So by eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner and planning snacks in between, you can help yourself lose weight as well as maintain better control of your eating throughout the day and night.

For most people, the evening is "down-time," used to relax, watch television, and unwind from the stresses of the day. Others view this as a time to multi-task and catch up on household chores, bills, homework, and other responsibilities. Whether you're winding down or checking off your to-do list, unconscious eating can accompany your routine and result in a massive calorie intake. Devouring a bag of chips, a sleeve of cookies, or a pint of ice cream can occur when your mind is somewhere else.

The Role of Sleep
Consuming a large amount of food before bedtime can also result in indigestion and sleep problems, which can trigger you to eat more during the proceeding days. A growing body of research suggests a connection between obesity and lack of adequate sleep. Statistics show that overweight individuals sleep about 1.8 hours less a week than people of normal weight. Since the 1960's sleep duration for American adults has dropped by as much as two hours a night, while obesity has drastically increased.

Sleep is a regulator of two hormones that effect appetite, leptin and ghrelin. Leptin helps suppress food intake and stimulate energy expenditure, while ghrelin stimulates appetite, fat production, and body growth. When one is sleep deprived, the level of leptin drops and the level of ghrelin increases. The result is a drastic increase in hunger. One study reported a 24% increase in hunger, with excessive, uncontrollable cravings for calorie and carbohydrate packed foods such as cookies, candy and cake. It can all add up to a vicious cycle of late night binges, lack of adequate sleep, uncontrolled snacking, late night binges, and so on. Continued ›

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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

Member Comments

  • Great article. I can see how this would get out of hand. It just starts with a small nibble and next thing you know you are binging. I never eat out of the box, and I always measure and track what I eat. Although it is hard sometimes because I would like to eat everything in site! Tracking and measuring helps a bunch! - 1/19/2016 8:39:26 PM
  • ANGEL115707
    I now what gets me. All day long, I am busy, so I don't mind being a little hungry. at night, I hate going to bed hungry. Too many nights I remember going to bed hungry and not being able to sleep. I'll toss and turn if I am hungry. So many people say you should not eat after the sun goes down, or you should not eat several hours before bed.... then I won't sleep!!! About all I can do is pace myself, and maybe even just eat a couple bites of protein right before bed so my tummy doesn't drive me mad.... - 1/18/2016 11:55:47 PM
  • "Consuming a large amount of food before bedtime can also result in indigestion and sleep problems, which can trigger you to eat more during the proceeding days."

    Pretty sure this should be "subsequent," unless we're involving time travel in our weight loss efforts. Which would be awesome. - 1/18/2016 1:51:28 PM
  • Try hot beverages like herbal tea (they seem more satisfying than cold ones), and if nothing else will satisfy, pop some popcorn. Also, my trigger foods are easy to avoid during the day but not so much in my own home - I found that there is no such thing as moderation when it comes to some oods for me, so they are simply not around anymore. - 1/18/2016 10:10:39 AM
  • Because I have reactive hypogycemia and am insulin resistant, I have to eat a little protein every 3 hrs per doc orders. Of course, I'm not eating thru the night, but I do have to have something throughout the day.
    - 1/18/2016 6:45:24 AM
  • I keep reading comments about eating at night or binge eating. Both are very real. But I also read people writing in about " this is the same information that has been going around for years" that too is true. However as I became overweight 25 years ago, my doctor told me something I never forgot " to lose weight you have to take in less than you expend" That was 20 years ago. also told me that "binge eating is more about a behavioral/mental problem than a health issues" Maybe these items have been recycled because it is that simple for 95% of all people. Those pesky facts.... :-) Keep the fact coming folks - 12/7/2015 4:05:31 PM
  • Excellent point. Dinner is the cut off, no matter what time it falls for you. - 11/14/2015 1:57:51 PM
  • A lot of it also depends on when you go to bed. If you go to bed at 10 and get up at 7, it would make sense to have a majority of your calories before 5. However, if you get up at 10 and go to bed after midnight, you still have half your day ahead of you at 5 PM... why would you stop fueling yourself?

    Yes, mindless eating in the evening would be a problem. But if you say "hmm, I'm hungry, let me go get a piece of fruit" that is not a problem.

    On most days, I don't eat breakfast, and for me, that makes sense. I get up fairly late (9 to 10), unless I am going somewhere (if I get up early, I do have breakfast). It wouldn't make sense for me to eat breakfast at 11 to eat lunch an hour later.

    However, it does make sense for me to have a snack after dinner. I don't eat unhealthy snacks, but I do often measure out some fruit and nuts into a bowl and eat that. It keeps me going until I'm ready to go to bed. - 9/5/2015 2:32:11 PM
  • I agree regarding the diet soda. We read all the time about how bad they are for us and that they cause us to be hungrier. Why would that be a suggestion? A lot of them have caffeine, as well, which is not a great idea before bed.

    Also, drinking anything close to bed time can result in a middle-of-the-nig
    ht trip to the bathroom, thus interrupting that 7-8 hours of desired sleep.

    I thought the article was great with this exception. - 6/16/2015 11:58:45 AM
  • I know this is a problem for a great many (most?) people. But for me, it went beyond just bad habit. My whole life I've gotten up in the middle of the night to eat once or twice, but in my mid-20s it started to get worse. The frequency increased slowly until I was waking up literally hourly feeling absolutely *famished* - just so.darn.hungy! No matter what I ate, no matter when I ate, no matted how much I ate (even deliberately overfeeding) - it didn't help. I was so tired all the time from never getting solid sleep. It was impacting my life, but I didn't want to see a doctor because what would I say? "I can't sleep because I eat all night"? I expected the doc to say "eat more at dinner and see if that helps."

    So before shelling out $$ for a doc visit, I went searching online for what it could be. I found that some people do suffer from something called "Night Eating Syndrome" - where the body's rhythms for sleep and eating get out of sync. Sufferers tend to eat through the night, and then not be hungry for breakfast. Sufferers tend to be overweight, though I am not. It is theorized that it is caused by serotonin issue (serotonin being responsible for regulating both sleep and appetite). Antidepressants are used to resolve it. I didn't want to take it that far if I could help it (antidepressants have so many side effects). I started taking 5HTP supplements (OTC in the US). It helps a bit, probably not as well as a prescription, but without all the side effects.

    Now I'm back to once or twice a night. It's still not ideal, and I still struggle, but the supplement does help. If others feel like their eating might be more than just a side-effect of reduced caloric intake, you might try it. - 12/10/2014 4:50:54 PM
  • Here's another idea...DON'T have diet soda! haha why would they suggest that?!
    Other than that, it's a pretty decent article. Simple, but good. - 9/16/2014 12:51:58 PM
  • BOY DO I LOOK LIKE THAT CHICK ON THE COUCH.....UGH.... - 9/9/2014 12:57:41 AM
  • ETHELMERZ
    Raw veggies do NOTHING for me, they are just cellulose, and no satisfaction from eating that, I don't care how fresh they are. Fruit works, we eat cut up strawberries at night, but I have a Skinny Cow treat every night at 7 pm, and that and the fruit keeps me from eating more. I drink hot coffee or iced coffee, depending on the season, and I do that until bedtime, that also keeps me fuller feeling. - 9/8/2014 1:31:13 PM
  • ANGEL115707
    Hate to say it, but this article is full of the same old info and we would all be hunger free in the evening if it actually worked. Simple fact is, if you are reducing calories, you will be hungry in the evenings, period. Deprivation and allowing yourself to go to bed hungry will result in insomnia (I know and hate it!) The key is to eat filling foods high in raw veggies, and you body will adjust to love raw food rather than nice fluffy carbs. The only way I have ever been able to feel better with my conditions and to go to bed without starving and suffering is to have some lean protein and raw veggies about an hour and a half before bed. 2-3 hours before bed... hahaha... nope, doesn't work. Taking melatonin does help be get sleepy enough to ignore hunger though. Deprivation diets NEVER last. You have to find what works for you, and never starve yourself. Check out Body Ecology, AIP Paleo and Raw Vegan diets all of which allow you to consume 10 times the food the average person does, but if its primarily raw veggies, you still stay within caloric goals. People often marvel at how much I can eat, but if I ate pizza, I cant eat two pieces without sweating. only veggies and some fruit can I consume tons of.
    also this was in the article "Have a low-calorie beverage (diet soda" WHAT!!!! Are you guys crazy! Thanks a lot! its that advice that gave my grandmother dementia!! And that kind of advice definitely isn't good for people who have conditions like me, including MS, Fibro etc.... awful awful..... I rejoined Sparkpeople ONLY to hold myself accountable but the amount of health knowledge these articles hold is disturbing. I don't like gluten, GMOs. factory meats etc and this website should definitely consider less recipes with all those nasty products if they expect anyone to see long lasting results. I am ticked I let myself get back up to 140... 140 is still in normal BMI for me. I obviously know what I am talking about, my body depends on it or I would be sicker! - 9/8/2014 11:56:00 AM
  • I want to share what is working for me. Ikeep my food log in a plain steno notebook. On the left column, I record what I eat with the number of calories and fat grams. At to right top, I wirte my present RMR and the number of calories and fat grams I am aiming for that day. As I eat, I subtract the calories and fat grams from that info. Whatever time I finish, I "turn over a new leaf." Immediately I date it for the next day, and enter my goals in the right column. Somehow, tha physical act of turning the page tells my brain that I am finished until tomorrow. It's funny that after that I feel satisfied!!! I have lost 31 lbs. so far and am in maintenance. - 9/8/2014 10:36:10 AM

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