Defeating the Midnight Munchies

It's late at night and you're in the throes of a snack attack! Here's how to deal.
Published May 16, 2016

The problem
Help. It’s midnight, I can’t sleep and I just want to snack. How can I stop the nighttime munchies?

The solution
Nighttime munchies are a scourge that has affected every dieter at one time or another — knowing how to successfully deal with late-night cravings is one of the keys to effective weight loss. No matter how good you have been during the day, something hits you at night, usually around 10 p.m., and you must eat, NOW.

Milton Stokes, a registered dietician and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, offers some helpful strategies to help you control your late-night snacking urges. Surprisingly, he says, the best way to help avoid the nighttime munchies is to make sure you eat breakfast and lunch.

"Establish regular meal times and patterns," says Stokes. "Erratic schedules and skipping meals, especially breakfast, set you up to overeat later in the day. I liken breakfast to fuel for a car. While we are able to run without proper fuel for a while, at a certain point each of us would 'crash' and start scarfing down any food within sight. That's when nighttime snacking comes in."

It's also important to understand the difference between true, physical hunger and emotional hunger or boredom. The urge to late-night snack usually comes from the latter and not the former.

"If you aren't physically hungry, then you may need to explore simple deterrents to eating," Stokes suggests. "One of the best is brushing your teeth and using a strong mouthwash. That will make anything you eat afterward taste bad. You can also go for a short walk, call a friend, answer email, organize your desk or just sit alone quietly for 10 minutes. Usually if you wait a few minutes, this desire to eat may subside. Lastly, you may just be thirsty. Thirst is easily confused with hunger. Have some water and call it a night.”

Snack-proof tips
Here are some things you can do to stop the midnight snacking:

  • Make sure you eat a good breakfast and lunch.
  • If you feel like snacking, have a big glass of water first.
  • Stay busy — a lot of nighttime eating is sparked by boredom. There are some great novels and films out there. Or, go for a nighttime ramble with the dog.
  • Keep plan-friendly snacks, like low-fat popcorn or rice cakes, handy for those times when you just have to treat yourself. To cure that crunch craving, try baby carrots.

However, if you are actually physically hungry, you should eat.

"Depriving yourself of food when you’re truly hungry can lead to binge eating later on," Stokes warns, "which is much, much worse than simply having a nighttime bowl of cereal."

Stokes also recommends a rice cake with a little cashew butter on it, a small apple with a slice of low-fat cheese, a cup of yogurt or even a handful of mixed nuts. (Just don't eat the whole jar.)

If, after all this, you just can't stop the night munching and you're waking up in the middle of the night and snacking, you might be suffering from a rare eating disorder called night eating syndrome. Albert Stunkard, MD, professor of psychiatry at the weight and eating disorders program at the University of Pennsylvania, sheds some light on this unusual condition.

"Night eating syndrome is characterized by overeating during the evening and waking at least three nights a week to eat," says Stunkard. "The evening overeating has to be at least 25 percent of the daily caloric intake after supper, and there has to be a minimum of three nighttime awakenings during the week. It's important to distinguish these awakenings from binges. The average caloric intake of a nighttime digestion is 280 calories, which is not a binge by any means."

If this describes you, then you should consult your physician. Treatments include a form of anti-depressant that works through serotonin, a neural transmitter, and cognitive behavior therapies.