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Is Evening Eating Destroying Your Weight Loss Efforts?

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 percent binged. When people skipped breakfast, 24 percent binged, and when people skipped breakfast and lunch, 60 percent 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 "downtime," 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 the next day. 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 1960s, 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 affect 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. 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?

Start by tracking three to five 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 and 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 three meals daily and one or two 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 seven to eight hours of sleep nightly.
  • Maintain a regular bedtime 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.
  • 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

This is true for me. Unregulated evening eating is a problem for me. Report
Nighttime eating is my biggest problem Report
I was a late afternoon eater, but otherwise it's the same struggle. Report
Great article! Report
Great article! Report
Great information. Thanks. Report
This is a really helpful article! Thanks! Report
Interesting and helpful article. Interesting and helpful comments, too. Work schedules are no longer all 9-5. Work and home times are so variable. I'm attempting to be flexible, open to ideas, suggestions and advice from SP and slowly, I have made changes in my lifestyle with positive results that have become permanent. Becoming aware of what I was doing and when has been revealing and helpful to me. Report
Interesting to consider Report
Yeah the 5 pm makes NO sense. I don't get home until after 4:30 if I go straight home from work. My husband has a 30 minute drive so if he gets off work at 5 he isn't home until 5:30. We don't eat supper until at least 6:00 at night.

You would be better off saying I'm not eating after ??? at night and pick a time that is good for you. I don't eat after 9 pm and don't actually eat until at least noon the next day though I do drink bulletproof coffee each morning. A lot of times I don't eat after 8 pm even. Report
Nighttime mindless snacking is my downfall. Report
I'm so glad that I got rid of this habit. At one time, I was really bad with evening eating. Report
I’m finding the 5pm standard arbitrary, considering most workplaces end their day at 5, after which employees must commute home. Only then can they prepare dinner, unless they hit the drive-thru or stop for food. For any of them, 5 is a no go. Report
Still a good read the second time round, Report
This article is out of date, & also inaccurate since IF works. I have read that it doesn't matter what time of day you eat or fast including if you are a Type 2 diabetic or have pre-diabetes. Many people have trouble eating early like breakfast & lunch, then stopping - no dinner or evening snax. I eat usually 2-10pm, often later. 4-midnite isn't uncommon, nor is staying up late. I sleep much better after I eat; just nothing too heavy or spicy. Potatoes or bananas are great & help me sleep thru the night. If you're a fast digester, this article will make no sense for you. Report
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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.