Is Evening Eating Destroying Your Weight Loss Efforts?

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.

Are You An Evening Eater? Try this exercise to find out.
Use the Nutrition Tracker to track 3-5 typical days of eating. Print each day's results and use your records to answer the following questions:

1. How many meals and snacks did you eat after 5:00 pm?
2. How many meals and snacks did you eat during the day?
3. How many total calories did you consume after 5:00 pm?
4. How many total calories did you consume for the day?
5. What activities occurred while you ate after 5:00 pm?

You may have a problem with evening eating if:

  • More than one-third of your meals & snacks are eaten after 5:00 pm.
  • More than one-third of your total calories are consumed after 5:00 pm
  • Evening eating constantly occurs with another activity.

    Put An End to the Evening Binge Cycle!
    You CAN control evening eating disasters. Try these tips to normalize sleeping patterns and fend off hunger:
    • Plan activities to do throughout the evening, but don't make food a part of the activity:
      • Take a bath
      • Walk the dog
      • Pay bills; balance the checkbook
      • Play board games with the kids
      • Call a friend
      • Keep your hands busy (polish the silver, sew, knit, or do any craft)
      • Play basketball, baseball, soccer
      • Read a book or magazine
      • Try a relaxing fitness video such as yoga or tai chi.
    • Eat 3 meals daily and 1-2 planned snacks, keeping in mind your total calorie range.
    • Plan to eat about the same number of calories at each meal throughout the day. The total should be within your calorie range.
    • Have a low-calorie beverage (diet soda, flavored water, etc.) in the evening.
    • Make a list of low-calorie snack options. Select one for the evening. Eat it, but no more.
    • Don't eat mindlessly! Eat all meals and snacks at the kitchen table, keeping all of your attention on the food you're enjoying. Take your time and really enjoy every bite.
    • Get 7-8 hours of sleep nightly.
    • Maintain a regular bed and wake time schedule, even on the weekend.
    • Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine.
    • If you have trouble sleeping, leave the bed (or room) and pursue another activity like reading until you're ready to sleep. Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex.
    • Finish eating at least two to three hours before your regular bedtime.
    • Exercise regularly.
    • Avoid caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime; avoid nicotine altogether.
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Member Comments

thanks Report
I used to hear people say that calories consumed before bed time will turn to fat. Of course I now know that is load of baloney. I eat approximately 1/3 of my daily calories between 8 - 11 PM, especially on workout days. Mind you, I run between 3 - 10 miles three times per week & I strength train/swim/light cardio twice per week. So five days per week, I burn in average 800 calories in addition to my BMR. I also pay close attention to macros in order to make my calories beneficial; that is key to successful running. I eat higher protein & moderate fat on non-running days for repair & recovery and higher carbs & lower fat on running days. And yes. I carb load on days leading up to a longer run or race. If you center your focus on an activity (particularly a cardio-driven one) and base your nutrition around it, you will lose weight - and keep it off. I've lost 80 pounds in just over a year. I still track everything I eat with Sparkpeople. But now, the only reason I step on the scale is to check my weight for hydration before & after runs. Which brings to my last point. Go online and use a hydration calculator. And drink enough water daily. Proper hydration will stimulate your metabolism, and in general will help you feel more energetic. Report
Thank you for this great article. Report
This article hits home for me. Report
It took me years to stop eating before bed--but--- I've done it now--thanks to Spark Report
I close up shop in the kitchen @ 7 pm. Period. That helps. Report
Excellent read. Good need-to-know information! Report
If I am not in the kitchen I am not eating. Report
Thanks for this....I am ready to settle down now with vacation over!!!! Report
I do eat all meals BUT I apparently dont eat enough for breakfast and lunch because I find myself needing to eat A LOT to get to my daily calorie goal. I became overweight by not eating enough (6-800 calories per day) and going into starvation mode so I am really trying to get to 1200 calories per day but I find it really hard. Its a lot of food compared to what I was eating previously. I'm afraid though that if I eat more earlier then I wont have enough calories left at dinnertime so I end up not eating enough....its a vicious cycle. Report
Wake up call! Yes, I this is a major issue for me. Never thought about how eating and sleeping are related. Another reason for mindful eating. Report
I've been a night time snacker for most of my life. In fact, i can't remember the last time I didn't have a snack before I went to bed. I quit smoking years ago. Night time snacking seems harder for me to quit than smoking! Report
Great article! Report
When I'm obsessing over food at night, I brush my teeth and floss because I know if I do that I will not eat cause then I would just have to floss and brush again. I still think about eating constantly though but at least I don't eat I guess. Report
I struggle with nighttime eating, but when I try to limit food toward the end of the day I am hungry and can't sleep when I am hungry. I end up waking up after a couple of hours feeling hungry. I've had enough calories by my count, but struggle sleeping on an empty stomach. Often after a great day of following my plan, I eat in the middle of the night to get back to sleep. Wake up feeling guilty and ashamed. Report


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.