The Daily Lemon:
How many times in the last month have you finished dinner, only to find yourself looking in the fridge, pantry, or freezer for something else to eat? More times than you can count?
Yup, I've been there!
But do we need that snack? No? Yes? When? Why? So many questions! Like most every nutrition answer ... it depends!
By the end of this article you will:
Does Eating After 8pm Cause Weight Gain?
Many people worry about gaining weight when eating later than a particular time. A common suggestion is to not eat after 8 PM, but whether you eat at night depends on your goals and lifestyle.
1. Workout and Activity Timing
When are you most active? Is it in the morning, afternoon, or evening? Consider structuring your day so that your largest (higher calorie) meals and snacks are situated around your most active times.
Scenario 1: If you are more active in the morning you'll want to plan for a hearty breakfast and lunch. You might even decide to have a snack around your workout.
Scenario 2: If you are most active in the evening, a larger dinner (and even a late night snack!) may be beneficial to repair and replenish your muscles and energize your body.
When I was a University student I typically trained for 2-3 hours in the late afternoon or evening (between the hours of 4:30-7:30pm). Being more active in the evening meant that the bulk of my energy expenditure occurred later in the day. With that, I found myself most hungry for a large dinner and bedtime snack. I needed that snack to energize my body and build and repair muscles! I currently workout at noon on most days. I find myself hungriest after my workout and through the early afternoon. It makes sense for me to eat more calories (larger meals and/or a snack) before and after my workout time!
2. Energy Needs
Your overall energy needs may dictate whether an evening snack is beneficial or a hinderance to your personal health goals. Consider the specific goals below:
Weight Gain: If your energy needs are high or your goal is weight gain, an evening snack offers an opportunity to take-in additional nutrients and calories to support your overall energy, exercise recovery, and/or growth needs.
Scenario 1: A priority for children or adolescents is to obtain enough energy (calories) to support growth and development. Snacks throughout the day (including an evening snack) may be crucial in meeting caloric needs.
Scenario 2: Many athletes have increased energy needs and a goal to gain muscle or weight. An evening snack may be a helpful strategy to meet caloric and protein requirements to optimize muscle growth and recovery.
Weight Maintenance: if your goal is weight maintenance, you may consider adding a snack in the morning, afternoon, or evening as directed by your hunger and appetite cues. It is likely that this snack is required during your most active hours of the day to energize your brain or fuel your workout.
Scenario 1: if you workout at 6am, you may find yourself better fuelled and energized with a snack before your workout or in the mid-morning.
Scenario 2: if you workout after dinner, a small snack late in the evening may benefit your recovery and satisfy your appetite for a sounder sleep.
As we see in the green column above, physical activity contributes to your Total Daily Energy Expenditure. If you are active in the evening, you'll likely require more calories in the evening to support exercise.
Weight Loss: if your goals is weight loss an evening snack can cause weight gain if you exceed your caloric needs for the day. An evening snack may or may not be a helpful addition to manage hunger, energize your body, or maintain your overall consistency.
Scenario 1: if you tend to eat after dinner but are fairly sedentary in the evening and have adequately fuelled your body at earlier meals and snacks, the additional calories from an evening snack may plateau your weight loss efforts.
Scenario 2:if you eat a snack after dinner but are more active at this time and have not yet met your caloric goal from earlier meals and snacks, the additional calories from an evening snack will not cause weight gain because they do not exceed your caloric target.
3. Personal Preference
Eating more calories than you burn is the primary factor that drives weight gain. However, how you structure your calories throughout the day is flexible based on your personal preference and lifestyle. Do you enjoy having three large, more satisfying meals? Would you rather have smaller meals and enjoy snacks between?
Many clients find themselves more satisfied eating three larger meals rather than smaller meals and snacks throughout the day. Oftentimes, multiple snacks create an opportunity to overeat and exceed caloric targets for weight loss. Sometimes, calories from snacks come from mindless grazing or munching or lower quality foods. Eliminating snacks can be a first-line weight loss strategy before one takes on more advanced protocols like calorie and macronutrient tracking.
Bottom-line: take a moment to assess the time of day you exercise; whether your goal is to maintain, lose, or gain weight; and your lifestyle and preferences . Would planning for an evening snack serve you?
Four Strategies to Manage Late Night Cravings
1. Eat Enough During the Day
Perhaps you experience hunger or cravings in the evening because you aren't eating enough during the day. Ensure that your day-time meals are balanced with adequate protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, and veggies to support physical fullness and energy demands.
In practice (and from personal experience) I've found that clients who have dieted or tracked calories and macronutrients tend to "hoard" their calories for the evening. I've termed this "macro hoarding" for all my macronutrient trackers out there! In the past, they had a goal of weight loss and were accustom to a chronic caloric deficit to lose weight or maintain a very low body fat percentage. It is very difficult to fall asleep if you are hungry! In an effort to manage extreme hunger in the evening, they would "save" their calories to enjoy late in the evening, For many, it is easier to fast in the morning when distracted by work or school or to "deal with" hunger during the day when willpower is high. Oftentimes this fear of being hungry in the evening continues even when a goal of weight loss no longer exists. If you find yourself grazing and munching in the evening, assess whether you are eating enough throughout the day. Would larger meals (and snacks) during the day prevent cravings and over-eating late at night?
2. Ask Yourself "Why?"
I'm all for respecting hunger signals. Listening to your body is the kindest thing you can do. But ask yourself...why am I choosing to have a snack?
If a late night snacking is simply a habit or a choice to defer negative emotions, you might reconsider what you really need. Is it because you are bored, sad, lonely, seeking comfort, or procrastinating? If so, consider whether another choice or decision would feel more nourishing. For example:
3. Ask yourself... "Does this nourish me?"
Is evening snacking nourishing your cells or your soul? This is a philosophy I've adopted from a fellow dietitian at Pick Up Limes.
To nourish the cells means to choose wholesome, nutrient dense foods that are packed with protein, fibre-rich carbs, healthy fats, and/or veggies for volume. They provide the energy, micronutrients, and phytochemical our physical body needs to thrive.
Healthy living is more than nourishing our cells. We must nourish our soul, too. We can become so consumed with being "healthy" that any "off course" choice leads to guilt, self-blame, shame, or a feeling that we are not enough... not doing enough, not trying enough, not having enough willpower, not thin enough, etc.
Review some examples of nourishing the soul as it relates to late night eating or snacking:
Scenario 1: You are a busy mom who is on-the-go all day long. You rarely have the opportunity to sit down and savour your meals. An evening snack as become a part of your self-care ritual. After the kids are in bed, you take a moment to enjoy a bowl of popcorn or a small dish of ice cream. You enjoy a small serving in consideration of their overall calorie and energy requirements. You nourish your soul. Despite breaking the infamous "no eating after 8pm" rule because you are mindful, present, and nourished from your snack.
Scenario 2: It is Friday night and you are out for a walk with friends. You pass an ice cream shop and decide to grab a cone. While the ice cream may not nourish your cells, the act of spending time with the friends is nourishing the soul. That's just as nourishing as having a more wholesome snack that nourishes the cells.
Honour your decisions by making them conscious decisions. Ask yourself, "does this nourish my cells?" If not, then ask yourself, "does it nourish my soul?" If yes, then continue without hesitation and most importantly: enjoy!
4. Plan Ahead!
If you've decided to eat: go for it! And more importantly, enjoy it. Decide whether you are eating to nourish your cells (ie. physical hunger) or your soul (ie. enjoying something yummy and delicious) as discussed above.
Nourish your cells: if you are physically hungry, focus on building a nutrient-dense snack balanced with some protein, healthy fats, and carbs. For example:
Protein: Greek yogurt
Fibre-Filled Carbs: Frozen berries
Healthy Fats: Pumpkin seeds
Are you looking to understand which foods contain protein, fibre-filled carbs, and healthy fats? Download the free cheat sheet here.
Nourish your soul: if you are eating to nourish your soul, take your time, eat slow, and enjoy and savour each bite. This means eating away from the screen: TV, phone, computer, or otherwise. In this way, you are eating something pleasurable, without the risk of over-eating mindlessly. Perhaps you consider enjoying this special treat with someone you love rather than on your own or in private.
Bottom-line: Assess whether a late night snack is nourishing your cells or soul. If so, go ahead and eat! Are you eating to differ a negative emotion? If your evening snack is not serving you, consider whether you could eliminate the habit or replace it with a more nourishing choice.
Whether or not you include an evening snack comes down to your personal goals, energy needs, and lifestyle preferences. An evening snack will not cause weight gain when planned into your overall caloric needs. Consider whether your evening snack is nourishing to your cells or soul. If you are snacking out of habit or are using food to differ a negative emotion, you may be better served replacing an evening snack with a new routine or strategy.