Dieters, Here Is Your Game Plan to Stop Late-Night Eating Once and For All

You’ve been on track and eating well during most of the day—until hunger pangs start to hit you late at night and you reach for the cookies, ice cream, or other snacks that sabotage your diet. Here’s how to cut down on your late-night snack habit.

Acknowledge the time of day

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Researchers at Brigham Young University found that your brain and the time of the day can affect what and when you eat. The 2015 study published in the academic journal Brain Imaging and Behavior looked at how people’s brains reacted upon seeing high- and low-calorie meals at different points of the day. Upon observing MRI scans from their subjects, the scientists discovered that food looks visually less rewarding at nighttime, and as a result you eat more to feel satisfied. So next time you’re thinking of sneaking those extra bites of that cheesecake before bed, keep in mind that your satisfaction level may be all in your head—not your stomach.

Don’t save all your calories for the end of the day

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If you eat like a bird or skip meals during the day, you’re more likely to binge out at night. “Balancing your blood sugar by eating a protein-rich breakfast, followed by protein, fiber, and good fats throughout the day is the best way to put the brakes on nighttime eating,” says NY Health and Wellness Nutrition Director Jacqui Justice. These are signs you might need to eat more healthy fats, increase your fiber intake, or get more protein in your diet.

Give yourself a bedtime (and stick to it)

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When you don’t sleep well, your body ends up confusing your appetite levels, and as a result, your hunger hormone ghrelin and your satiety hormone leptin end up imbalanced. “This imbalance causes people to not be hungry in the morning when they should be and instead hungry at night when they shouldn’t be,” explains Justice. And if your sleep issues are not resolved, this consistent behavior can even lead to Night Eating Syndrome (NED). To get a better night’s sleep avoid scrolling through your phone right before bed. Instead try reading a book, meditate, or try these tips to fall asleep more easily.

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Distract yourself

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It may sound silly, but keeping yourself busy helps keep you from giving in to cravings. Or set up a bedtime ritual that signals to your body that it is done eating for the day. ”After dinner, brush and floss your teeth to change your palate—this is amazing for zapping sweet cravings,” she says. Other ideas? Try painting your nails, calling a friend, going for a walk, or doing some chores to keep your mind occupied.

Try a quick fix

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There are little things you can do to keep you from giving in to those late-night cravings. Cara Walsh, RD, of Medifast California recommends keeping gum on hand in case of emergency. She says, “This [gum] keeps your mouth busy while sending blood to your hypothalmus, causing your brain to release serotonin.” Other easy fixes include drinking water (thirst is often mistaken for hunger), drinking peppermint tea (which is also known to curb appetite), taking a bath, lighting some aromatherapy candles, or find a regular nighttime activity, such as a walking group to keep you active and away from the fridge.

Keep healthy options on hand

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Realistically, there are going to be times that you give in to late-night cravings. So try to make sure you snack on something healthy, instead of mainlining your kid’s Pirate’s Booty or accidentally polishing off the Rocky Road. For nutritionist Amy Gorin, MS, RD, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition, her go-to is Wonderful Pistachios Sweet Chili 100-calorie pack. It’s portion controlled, and the time it takes to remove the shells leads to eating more slowly. Fresh cut fruit, vegetables, and nuts are always good options to have on hand as they will keep you fuller longer and provide you with additional nutrients.

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If you’re gonna have a late-night snack, be mindful about it

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It’s easy to mindlessly eat and as a result what should’ve been a few tortilla chips ends up becoming a whole bag of them. “When late-night cravings hit, take a 10 second pause and ask yourself: Am I really hungry or just stressed, bored, or is this just a habit,” suggests Justice. “Knowing why you are doing something is an important component of changing that behavior.” By paying attention to your internal cues (a growling stomach, headaches, etc.) and external cues (watching TV, seeing your spouse snacking) you will become more conscientious of why you’re eating and if you really need to at all. Here are common feelings you don’t realize you mistake for hunger.

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