FOOD

Reasons You're Late-Night Snacking (And How To Avoid It)

Dinner: salad. Dessert: one tub of ice cream and a block of chocolate.

23/05/2017 7:24 AM AEST | Updated 23/05/2017 7:27 AM AEST

It's 9pm, you've had a healthy dinner and you know you should stop eating, but you're hungry -- for something sweet, salty or carby. Or, you've just come home from work, changed into your comfies and open the pantry. It's been a long day and you're after a reward.

In both instances, you may eat way too much junk food, or food in general, than your body really needs. And you don't feel great afterwards. Does this sound familiar?

Overeating at night is super common, but there are simple ways to help prevent it. First, let's take a look at the main reasons why we snack at night or overeat throughout the evening.

"There's a few reasons why this happens," Chloe McLeod, accredited practising dietitian and sports dietitian, told HuffPost Australia.

"One of them would be that maybe you actually are hungry. Maybe you didn't have an afternoon snack and lunch was hours and hours ago, and you're just ready to eat.

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"In some instances, it might be because you're feeling tired. When you're tired, your body releases more of the hormones that make you feel hungry, and it slows secretion of the hormones that do make you feel satisfied."

Another common reason for overeating after work and during the evening is because we are looking for a 'reward' after having a tough or long day.

"Whether it's been a really difficult day, a meeting didn't go how you wanted it to go, or you've had a fight with your partner, a lot of the time people do turn to food as a reward or a comfort," McLeod said.

"Emotion certainly comes into play when we're looking at that side of things. That feeling that we deserve that bit of chocolate, or extra serve of dinner, or extra glass of wine."

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If doughnuts are your undoing, don't keep them in the house.

We can also turn to food to deal with stress and negative feelings, nutritionist Fiona Tuck explained.

"Mindless snacking can be a way of avoiding emotions or feelings. It's comfort eating," Tuck told HuffPost Australia.

"When we are stressed, cortisol levels can raise which can lead to cravings for high carbohydrate or salty, fatty foods. Also, when our 'feel good' hormone is low, we often crave food such as carbs to boost 'feel good' chemicals in the brain."

Not eating enough throughout the day or skipping macronutrients at main meals can also result in overeating later in the day.

"The other common reason is not having eaten enough of the right foods, either throughout the day or in that evening meal, so then craving something sweet," McLeod said.

"For instance, people who are really active and trying to lose weight, and then are not eating enough carbohydrates in their evening meal. They're just craving something sweet because their body is needing some carbohydrates to help with recovery, and then head for the chocolate or biscuit cupboard."

Now that we know why we overeat later in the day, here are eight ways to help prevent it from occurring.

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Keep the fridge and fruit bowl full of fresh fruit for healthy snacks.

1. Surround yourself with healthy food

Think about it: if the chocolate and chips aren't in the cupboard, you can't eat it.

"Make sure you have healthy choices available. It's easier to say 'no' to that block of chocolate once when you're in the supermarket, than it is to say no to it 100 times when you're at home," McLeod told HuffPost Australia.

"Be mindful of what you have in the house and have healthy foods around."

2. Stay hydrated

It sounds simple, but drinking enough water has been shown to be a helpful strategy for weight loss.

"Make sure you're well hydrated and have plenty of water," McLeod said.

"Drinking enough water means that you're less likely to overeat in other situations. When you're dehydrated you tend to eat more."

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Bored of plain water? Spruce it up with fruit and herbs.

3. Question your motives

Before starting your afternoon/evening snack feast, stop for a moment and tap into why you're actually looking for food. Is it for comfort, a reward, boredom or truly hunger?

"For example, if it's 10 o'clock and you want to watch that next episode of whatever you're watching on Netflix, maybe it's that you're just tired and it's bedtime. Going to bed that little bit earlier can make a big difference," McLeod said.

"Or maybe you've noticed that it's because you're feeling tired or wanting a reward, or you've had a bad day. Have a chat to someone. Give your mum or your friends a call. Maybe even incorporate some yoga or mindfulness activities to help reduce stress."

Other ways to shift the focus from food is to go for a walk or have a warm, relaxing bath.

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4. Eat regular healthy meals throughout the day

Although it can be tempting to help weight loss, skipping breakfast or lunch can actually lead to overeating later on in the day.

"To help with your eating throughout the day, and so you can avoid the late night eating, drink plenty of water and also include plenty of high fibre, low GI carbohydrates and good quality protein -- whether they're animal-based or plant-based," McLeod said. "This can help you to feel more satisfied throughout the day."

And don't forget to eat your veggies.

"Include veggies at every meal. They provide fibre to keep you full, and vitamins and minerals," Tuck explained.

"Include a small amount of fat with each meal as fat creates satiety, keeping you fuller for longer. And include protein at every meal, which will help to prevent blood sugar dips and keep you fuller for longer."

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5. Eat more slowly and mindfully

Oftentimes we head straight for dessert minutes after wolfing down dinner. Instead, eat more slowly and mindfully, and give your body time in between dinner and dessert to register fullness.

"Wait for 20 minutes after dinner prior to eating any other food. It can often take 20 minutes for the brain to recognise that the body has had food," Tuck said.

"Practise mindful eating. Before you eat the food, smell it, savour it and really think about why you are eating it."

6. Get enough quality sleep

A bad night's sleep could very well be the reason we overeat the next day, which means it's important to get enough quality sleep -- for our minds, body and appetite. If that means skipping one episode of Shameless, so be it. It's worth it.

"Go to bed early and get a better sleep. Sleep has such a huge impact on all areas of health. Getting that 7-9 hours is really advised," McLeod said.

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7. Strategically snack

"If you're someone who tends to start eating when you get home from work, maybe have a snack just before you leave work (an apple, some nuts or veggie sticks), so that when you get home you're not ravenous and it's enough to tide you over until dinner," McLeod explained.

Or, when you get home, have a healthy, satisfying snack. Here are 10 filling snacks under 150 calories.

8. Don't skip breakfast

"One of the common things people say is 'I'm not hungry at breakfast'," McLeod said. "They start getting hungry in the later afternoon, but they're busy, so their main meal ends up being a giant meal in the evening.

"When they wake up in the morning they're not hungry again because there's been so much food consumed in the evening.

"By having breakfast, and a healthy lunch, you're more satisfied throughout the day. Then have an appropriate portion in the evening. Most people do start to find they are hungry when they wake up."

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