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Nutrition Articles  ›  Pitfalls and Plateaus

Is Evening Eating Destroying Your Weight Loss Efforts?

Cues to Eating and How to Control Them

-- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian
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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

  • 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
  • I'm just not a breakfast person. I don't really get hungry until around 9-10:00am. But it's in the evening that I get hungry and want to snack. So I have three meals a day, plus two snacks spread throughout the day; but I leave around 500 calories, for the evening, when I'm going to be snacking. That way I eat when I'm hungry but I don't go over my limit. - 3/27/2014 6:10:28 PM
  • Very informative article. I have only 1 small quibble.... not everyone has dinner at 5:00. I work until 6:00, then drive home, walk the dog, change clothes, cook dinner. My dinnertime is 7 or 7:30, so a third of my calories come after 5. That does not make me a night binger..... it's the junk eaten at 9 and 10 that does!! - 3/26/2014 7:32:45 AM
  • JUMPINGJEANNIE
    Great article!!! - 8/22/2013 11:24:16 AM
  • Good article except the suggestion to drink diet sodas. Diet sodas are known to increase hunger and are linked to other health problems as well. Drink water or unsweetened tea. Real and fake sugars should be minimized. - 7/26/2013 10:56:01 AM
  • We are all trying to make changes in order to develop a healthy lifestyle. In order to move forward in this development and keep making progress, I don't think there is ever a time when you should feel deprived. Once you start feeling deprived and tortured, you're going fall off the wagon. So I say if an evening snack is a habit you're not willing to change yet, at least plan it into your day. Adjust your meals throughout the day so you have some calories left over for that evening snack. This may even work to your benefit. For example, I allow myself to enjoy a reasonable sweet treat as my evening snack. Because I know I can have something sweet in the evening, it helps me say no to sweets throughout the day. Have a plan and make good choices. - 7/19/2013 10:36:45 AM
  • I question the advice on eating at the kitchen table and enjoying every bite. It is like waving temptation in the face of a starving person. I am much more in control of my diet now that I am eating in the libary on the second floor: It is a relaxing room, rather than a working room. To get an additional slice of bread or a some butter for the veggies or sauce for the steak: means a trip downstairs and back up and I usually decide it isn't worth it. The meal is what I intended to eat and it keeps me on plan. In the kitchen, I can just reach out and the sauce or the drink or the salt or whatever is immediately available and much harder to resist. Ditto, seconds that were intended for another dinner. Avoiding temptation works best for me. - 7/18/2013 12:54:28 PM
  • KATNESS1469
    I will admit I usually have a small snack before bed BUT I get on the treadmill for half an hour after dinner and before bed. My snack usually is no more than 100 to 150 calories. Like 3 crackers and a slice of provolone or a frozen fruit bar, or a 100 calorie snack. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. And it's kind of unavoidable if you have to smoke to Go to Sleep.. (Some of you know what I mean) - 7/18/2013 10:17:59 AM