As a registered dietitian, "Step away from the kitchen" isn't something I like to say often. Actually, I prefer for people to be in their kitchens, preparing lots and lots of healthy meals and snacks. But the truth is, many people are eating way too much after dinner. Maybe it's because they're bored, stressed from work, lonely, or simply do it out of habit. Either way, too many calories are being consumed, and the result is weight gain.
When working with patients who are plagued by nighttime eating, the first thing I look at, though, is whether or not they're eating enough for dinner. Some admit they eat a very small dinner because they feel that no matter what, they're going to eat all night long. However, once we balance their dinner to include plenty of veggies, whole grains (such as barley, couscous, brown rice, and quinoa), and lean protein (fish, skinless poultry, tofu, and sirloin), some of them begin to eat less later on.
Others admit to eating hardly anything all day and then having a late dinner. Problem is, they're so starved that even after dinner is complete they can't stop eating. Once I get them to develop a healthy eating schedule, consisting of three meals per day, plus one to two snacks, the nighttime munchies do disappear.
Don't believe me? If it seems your nighttime munchies are here to stay, try one of these tricks.
1. Go to bed earlier.
As I like to tell my patients, "You can't eat while sleeping."
2. Keep only healthy foods in the house.
Nighttime eating might not be so horrible, if you were simply munching on healthy, low-calorie foods. If chips, cookies, and ice cream are your downfall, don't buy them. Make sure you have raw veggies, fruit, air-popped popcorn, and sugar-free ice pops available.
3. Stick a photo of yourself on the refrigerator door.
Find either a picture you love (say, showing you at your ideal weight) or a picture you hate (depicting you at your heaviest). Either way, that constant reminder will help motivate you to keep the refrigerator door shut.
4. Brush your teeth.
This tip is an oldie but goodie. If you brush and floss your teeth immediately after a meal, you are less likely to grab something again so quickly.
5. Take up knitting, needlepoint, or crochet.
Sometimes people find themselves eating because they simply need to do something with their hands. Finding a hobby that keeps your hands busy and your mind focused might just be your ticket out of the kitchen.
6. Call a friend or family member.
If food is your nighttime companion, try speaking to someone by phone or Skype instead. Talking through your day's stressful events, versus eating through them, may work wonders.
7. Start a snack journal.
Many of my patients have no idea just how many calories they're inhaling after dinner. By writing down everything you eat, you become accountable—and you may be less likely to rip open that bag of chips. Remember, all it takes to lose 1 pound a week is to eat 500 calories fewer per day.
8. Set your DVR.
Watch TV— without commercials. The fewer commercials, the less time you have to get up and get something to eat. But please don't use the pause or stop button on your remote, because that would simply defeat the purpose.
Before you put spoon to mouth, ask yourself: Are you truly hungry, or are you angry, lonely, or tired? Deciphering between real hunger and emotions is not easy, but as with everything, practice makes perfect, and once you learn to tell the difference, you can look beyond food for comfort.
Side note: If you happen to live in a city, especially New York City, then perhaps your kitchen is practically in your living room, making it even harder to step away. In that case, you'll definitely need one more tip: Paint your nails. It's very hard to eat with wet nail polish. However, if you are male, might I suggest referring back to tip No. 1?
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Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.