How to Conquer Nighttime Food Struggles

A three-step plan to slay the midnight munchies.

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Over the course of the past decade, working in a practice exclusively devoted to weight management, I've met a great many folks who struggle with their dietary decisions. More often than not, they label themselves as stress eaters, emotional eaters and boredom eaters. And while the foods they tend to struggle with may vary, there's one factor that ties many of them together – their struggles occur primarily at night.

Yoni Freedhoff
Yoni Freedhoff
For many of them, their mornings are incredibly light in calories, with some skipping breakfast altogether. Lunches are well-controlled too and often described to me as terrifically healthy. But from the drive home from work onwards, that's when they battle their various dietary demons.

But here's the thing. Stress, emotions and boredom aren't solely relegated to late afternoons, evenings and nighttimes, and when questioned, the folks who tend to only struggle later in the day will readily admit that they have their share of stress, depression, anxiety, frustration and tedium in mornings and early afternoons too. Why is it then that their triggers only seem to fire blanks in the earlier hours?

[Read: How Too Little Sleep Affects How We Eat.]

I'm betting that these folks' time-based struggles have something to do, at least in part, with a hunger hormone called ghrelin – known to increase in response to fasting (or low-energy intake) and, at least in animals, recurrent feeding patterns. With the folks who struggle in the later parts of the day, both of these are likely possibilities.

Oftentimes, precisely because they know they struggle in the later parts of the day, they keep their daytime calories purposely low and even intentionally skip meals; their rationale being, given their known calorie excesses at night, they're better off not to eat many calories in the day. In turn, this sets up a recurrent pattern of binging or binge-like behaviors at night, which may further spike ghrelin's trained secretion.

[Read: Binge Eating Disorder: A Diagnosis for Healing.]

Maybe nighttime strugglers make more ghrelin, or maybe somehow they're more sensitized to its struggle-inducing effects. But one thing's for sure: If your struggles only occur at night, there's a great chance that you can switch them off without the requirement of white-knuckled willpower.

All you need to do is organize your daytime eating. Eat more calories throughout the day, and ghrelin production won't increase as a result of not eating enough. And if you include a special effort during the first few weeks to eat an extra snack 30 to 60 minutes before your struggles would have traditionally begun, you may help your body to forget your prior recurrent pattern of nighttime excesses.

[Read: The No. 1 Skill for Weight Management.]

No doubt, if your dietary witching hours are during your drive home, your evenings or your nights, you've got nothing to lose in trying this two-week science experiment:

1. Eat breakfast and lunch. Ensure both include a minimum of 400 food-based calories, inclusive of 25 grams of protein (liquid food and protein sources don't count in these minimums).

2. Have a 100- to 150-calorie, solid food-based snack between meals. Each should include at least 7 grams of protein.

3. For the first week, have an additional 150-calorie, solid food-based snack that includes at least 10 grams of protein 30 to 60 minutes before your struggles used to begin. Once the week is done, you're welcome to skip this step, but if struggles recur, bring it back.

[See: 10 Healthful Snacks That Won't Break the Calorie Bank.]

If the experiment is a partial success (cravings are down but not gone; control is better but not perfect), try adding 50 solid food-based calories to each meal and snack.

Think of it like spending daytime calories to save those nighttime overindulgences which, in turn, would lead you to consume more calories than the amount of daytime calories required to short-circuit the behavior. Yes, you'll be eating more during the daytime, but overall, you'll come out ahead. And, more likely than not, you'll find the quality of your diet improving as your cravings for junk dissipate.

Good luck and happy experimenting!

[Read: How to Take a Stand against Junk Food.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter @YoniFreedhoff. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and the 10-Day Plan to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.