Here's How to Get Control of Your Night Snacking

Snacking at night can lead to a variety of consequences.

Couple snacking on popcorn and watching film on ipad
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If you often reach for a sweet or salty snack at night, you’re not alone. Many people get the urge for a nighttime snack, even if they’ve consumed enough calories throughout the day.

Although eating at night doesn’t always lead to health issues, consuming more calories than your body needs can cause you to gain weight over time. Gaining too much body fat can increase your risk of a number of medical conditions, from heart disease to type 2 diabetes. Plus, choosing less healthy snacks that are high in added sugar and salt can harm health, too. 

This is why it’s important to figure out why you may be frequently snacking at night and what you can do to curb your habit.

The Reason You're Snacking at Night

There are a number of reasons why you might crave a snack at night, some of which may not be so obvious. These are the most common causes of late-night snacking.

You’re Skipping Meals

You may think that skipping meals is the best way to cut calories and lose weight, but this practice isn’t healthy and can actually increase the urge to snack at night.  

When your body isn’t getting the calories it needs throughout the day, you’re more likely to feel hungrier at night. Studies show that skipping meals like breakfast increases the risk of nighttime snacking and intensifies cravings for carb-rich foods.

That’s why it’s important to eat regular meals throughout the day, even if you’re trying to lose weight.

It’s Become a Habit 

The more frequently you perform a behavior, like eating ice cream while watching TV at night, the more likely it is to become a habit. If you snack in front of the TV every night or immediately grab ice cream from the freezer after you’ve washed the dinner dishes, these nighttime patterns may be triggering your snacking and reinforcing unhealthy habits. 

Habits can be hard to break, but simply changing up your nighttime routine — like taking a walk instead of watching TV or stretching for 10 minutes after you’ve finished the dishes — can help. 

Stress and Anxiety

After a stressful day, you may find yourself craving sugary, salty, or high-fat snacks at night. Stress can interfere with self-control, spike hormones that make you feel hungry, and increase your cravings for comforting foods, like sweets. This combination can lead to nighttime snacking.

Although stress doesn’t impact everyone’s appetite in the same way, if you find that you snack more at night when you’re feeling stressed or anxious, using stress-reduction techniques like meditation and yoga, or getting help from a medical professional like a therapist may help.   

Inadequate Sleep

Not getting enough sleep can lead to overeating, especially at night. Studies show that people who don’t meet sleep recommendations tend to snack more in general, including at night. 

Not only that, but eating within three hours of going to bed increases your risk of waking up at night, which can make you feel tired and affect your eating pattern the following day.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), teenagers ages 13 to 18 years of age should get 8 to 10 hours of sleep while adults 18 to 60 years of age should get at least 7 hours of sleep a night.

Disordered Eating

If you find yourself frequently snacking on unusually large volumes of food at night, it could be a sign of disordered eating. Binge eating disorder (BED) is a type of eating disorder characterized by eating large portions of food over a short time period, feeling out of control while eating, and feeling guilty afterward. If you experience this type of behavior at least once a week for at least three months, you may have BED.

Bulimia — which involves binging on food and then using methods like purging or over-exercising to control weight — and night eating syndrome (NES) — an eating disorder characterized by eating a large portion of your calorie needs at night — are other eating disorders that may cause nighttime eating.

If you think you may be struggling with an eating disorder, it’s critical to get the right help from a healthcare provider. 

Why Snacking at Night Is a Concern

Everyone snacks at night from time to time and it’s not always a “bad” or “unhealthy” behavior. 

Occasionally enjoying dessert or a late-night snack won’t significantly impact health. Plus, some people, like pregnant people and those trying to gain weight, may benefit from adding in a snack after dinner.

However, taking in more calories than you need on a regular basis can cause you to gain body fat and negatively impact other aspects of your health, too.  

It Could Cause You to Gain Body Fat 

Your body needs a certain amount of calories on a daily basis to maintain a healthy weight. If you eat too many calories too often, you’ll gain weight. 

Over time, taking in too many calories from nighttime snacking could cause your to become overweight or obese, which increases the risk of many health conditions.  

Increases the Risk of Chronic Diseases

Research shows that eating at night is associated with a variety of health issues, including obesity and heart disease.

Frequently overeating at night could increase the risk of heart disease by damaging blood vessels and contributing to arteriosclerosis, or plaque build-up in the arteries.

Eating late at night could also negatively impact your blood sugar levels and increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Could Impact Work Performance and Mental Health

Unhealthy eating behaviors, including late-night snacking, can negatively impact your physical and mental health. 

Overeating at night could cause symptoms like headaches, diarrhea, and stomachaches the next day. Overeating foods like candy, ice cream, or other ultra-processed snacks at night may also affect your mental health and make you feel guilty, depressed, or ashamed, which can impact your ability to function normally and succeed at school or work.

Tips to Reduce Snacking at Night 

Sometimes, a few simple changes can make a big difference in your nighttime snacking habit. Here are a few ways to reduce your urge to snack at night. 

  • Eat regularly: A healthy eating pattern doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone, but, in general, eating every four hours or so can help you maintain your energy levels and ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs throughout the day. Plus, this can help reduce snacking at night.
  • Change up your nightly routine: Changing your nightly routine could help reduce nighttime snacking. For example, if you tend to eat ice cream while watching TV every night, try another activity instead. This could be reading a book in bed while sipping on some tea or taking a 15-minute relaxing yoga class online. 
  • Keep a food diary: Food diaries help detail what you eat and drink throughout the day and night. Keeping track of your food intake for a few days can help you identify potentially problematic patterns like skipping meals or going too long without eating, which could cause you to snack at night.
  • Portion your snack: If you enjoy having a snack after dinner, pre-portioning your food could help you stay within your calorie needs for the day. Instead of taking the entire bag of chips or tub of ice cream to the sofa, try portioning out a reasonably sized snack to munch on. Measuring out a portion of your favorite snack can help train your eye and give you an idea of what a recommended serving size looks like.  
  • Pre-plan your snack: Pre-plan what you're going to grab if you get the munchies. If you’re craving something sweet, consider opting for a healthier option like frozen grapes or a DIY ice pop. For salty options, measure out some trail mix and pack it in a small container so it’s portion controlled.
  • Get plenty of sleep: Getting a solid night’s sleep could be an easy way to combat nighttime snacking. Try turning off your electronics, putting on some comfy pajamas, and relaxing in bed to get yourself ready to catch some z’s.
  • Stay consistent: It takes a little trial and error to figure out what works best for you. Habits, especially those that involve food, can be hard to break, so it may take a while to develop a plan or routine that helps you cut back on snacking at night. 

When to See a Healthcare Provider

For some people, making a few simple changes to their eating pattern or nighttime routine can help them cut back on night snacking. But, in some cases, you may need the help of a healthcare professional to get a hold on your nighttime eating.

If you think that a mental health disorder like anxiety or depression or a potential eating disorder may be causing you to snack at night, it’s important to get the right help. If you’re not sure where to start, consider asking your primary care physician for advice. 

They can rule out possible medical causes of your nighttime snacking and help you pick the best healthcare professional for your needs, which may include a psychologist or registered dietitian. 

A dietitian can also determine whether your current eating habits may be causing nighttime snacking and help you develop an eating plan that works best for your needs. 

A Quick Review

Although nighttime snacking isn’t always something to be concerned about, frequently overeating at night could harm your health in several ways. 

Habitually snacking at night could be a sign that you’re not getting enough sleep, are overstressed, or that you’re undereating during the day. It could also indicate an underlying health condition, like an eating disorder. 

If you feel that you need help to control your snacking at night, make an appointment with a trusted healthcare provider to get some advice.

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