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

  • 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
  • This is definitely one of my problems. It's partly because I start work at 6 am, so breakfast is at 4.30, teabreak is half 8, lunch is 11.15, but family dinner is about 6 pm. So I snack when I finish work at 2, and then Still snack after dinner! Hopefully this will change when I start my new, 9 to 5 job in September (though I will be doing less walking about during the day too, so swings and roundabouts) I find that keeping my hands occupied is the best solution, so sewing, or even computer games, help a lot. But not watching tv, or even reading, one hand is free to shovel food in! - 8/3/2014 1:38:21 AM
  • GPALLERSON
    Good points. My battel is I work 4 nights from 6pm to 6am then 4 nightes off and do it over and over ad nausiom! My body clock is a mess. All my friends are sleeping when I am awake.

    Over the last 4 months I have managed to gain back 10 pounds. This house has never been so clean and the dishes along with laundry are finished. Then the ptoblem id what to do the rest of the night except practice my cooking!
    - 7/23/2014 2:42:12 AM
  • I've never been much of a snacker, but dh started recently offering me snacks during tv time. Finally, last night, I said, no thank you, then he got all pouty. I hate being strong. - 7/17/2014 5:56:22 PM
  • Only use the bedroom for sleeping and sex? Um, how about NO! Sometimes I read in the bedroom; do crafts in the bedroom; practice my mandolin; do other things, too.

    I usually don't get dinner till about 7pm; I am asleep by 8:30. No, I cannot cook earlier. The last time I used spark and lost 55 pounds, I was eating dinner at 9 - 10pm, because of my work schedule. I had no problems. It all depends on your activity level, not necessarily when you've eaten. - 5/29/2014 7:14:50 PM
  • Good article. The only thing that struck me wrong was the mention of diet soda. Diet soda is full of chemicals and I think there are much better options you could have suggested. - 4/28/2014 8:18:02 AM
  • Thank you for the comment SLOLIFE; I was wondering about the 5:00 cut-off time. Substituting "dinner hour" definitely makes more sense for me. I do know a lot of people eat dinner at 5:00 so for them 5:00 is fine. - 4/27/2014 2:23:15 PM
  • Don't be annoyed or puzzled by the 5PM cutoff time. Just substitute "dinner hour," whatever it happens to be for you. That's all that arbitrary time is . . . when you eat your last regular meal of the day. If you are eating a lot of your calories AFTER your evening meal (no matter what time it happens to be), then you have a problem. - 4/27/2014 2:03:44 PM
  • When I am dieting I get strong cravings in the evening, and it is imperative that I have no unhealthy food in the house, because even if it's hidden I'll find it. I think you need to get your family on board with the new healthy eating regime, at least to the point of not having fattening things in the house. - 4/27/2014 4:45:57 AM
  • I suffer from heartburn (acid reflux), and on the days I don't have a "midnight" snack, the minute I lie down, my throat is on fire. Usually it's fat free cottage cheese or fat free tapioca pudding, sometimes crackers. I don't think it's inappropriate if it's for a good cause. Getting a good night's sleep is supposed to help with good eating habits, and if the heartburn is keeping me awake, that's not a good thing. - 4/27/2014 4:07:18 AM

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