Updated: 4 days ago
Medically reviewed by Serena Benali, Registered Dietitian.
Have you ever “eaten healthy” all day only to find yourself over-powered by late-night cravings when the evening rolls around?
If you’re feeling guilty, frustrated and wondering why you just can't seem to shake these late-night cravings, I’m here to help you uncover some common pitfalls so you can put an end to nighttime cravings.
Here are 7 science-backed hacks on how to curb those late night cravings:
1. Eat enough during the day
If you don’t eat enough food during the day, your body will signal its hunger through strong cravings in the evening (1).
Our body always ‘keeps the score’ in regards to energy (calories) needs and energy expenditure.
Often these cravings experienced, are for foods with higher amounts of calories this is because calorie restriction increases our cravings towards higher-calorie foods (1).
This can be the reason it always feels like you are reaching for foods like chips and chocolate even after eating dinner.
Instead, focus on eating enough during the day, not just at one meal but all meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and snacks.
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Give your body enough food throughout the day, meals and snacks, not just at dinner. Not eating enough increases our desire for higher-calorie foods.
2. Give yourself permission to enjoy all foods
Do you have certain foods that are “off-limits”?
Select food deprivation or having certain foods that are “off-limits” are a big driver of food cravings (2).
Even if you’re eating enough calories during the day, rigid food rules that restrict the foods you enjoy can lead to low food satisfaction and this can be a reason you find yourself overcome with cravings at night and end up eating when you’re not hungry.
A scarcity or “all-or-nothing” mindset only leads us to wanting these foods even more! A scarcity mindset creates a vicious cycle that can leave you feeling guilty and frustrated with overwhelming late-night cravings.
A 2015 study looking at the effects of carbohydrate deprivation, specifically bread, found that three days of bread deprivation lead to an increase in cravings for it (3).
A 2012 study examined chocolate deprivation for individuals who identified themselves as chocolate lovers. Participants were instructed to not eat any chocolate for 2 weeks. Following the two week deprivation participant identified increased food cravings and anxiety. The chocolate lovers also experienced more guilt after eating chocolate again (4).
You always want what you can’t have and the saying holds true for food too! Having “off-limits” foods only increases our desire and cravings for them. Give yourself permission to eat and enjoy all foods and say goodbye to those nighttime cravings.
3. Ensure sure you’re getting enough sleep at night
A lack of sleep can change the way our bodies regulate hormones, specifically two that regulate hunger and fullness.
The hunger hormone ghrelin stimulates our appetite, while the hormone leptin gives us the feeling of being full (5).
A reduced night slumber is associated with elevated ghrelin levels and decreased leptin levels. In other words, a lack of sleep resulted in an increase in appetite and hunger especially an increased for high-calorie foods (5).
A 2019 study found that a 33% reduction, about 2.5 hours, in sleep for just one night increased food cravings, hunger, portion sizes and the food reward (6). This shows us just how important getting our ZZZ’s can be in curbing those late night cravings!
Getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep can be challenging, but here are some of my favourite tricks to help get a good night’s sleep:
Avoid coffee in the evening and perhaps even late afternoon. As we get wiser (older) we can become more sensitive to the caffeine! This can make it harder to fall asleep (7).
If you’re feeling anxious before bed, try a sleep mediation.
Try to avoid screen-time an hour before bed. Bedtime screen use is associated with poor sleep quality, quantity and day time sleepiness (8). If you feel too tempted, consider keeping electronics outside your bedroom. If you use your phone as an alarm considering pulling out your old-fashioned alarm clock instead!
Move your body: exercising during the day can make it easier to sleep at night. Choose body movement that you enjoy and that leaves you feeling good (9).
Not getting enough sleep can leave you feeling hungrier, craving high-calorie foods and feeling less full from food. Prioritize a good nights’ rest each evening to set you up for a refreshing day tomorrow!
4. Find ways to de-stress after a long day
Built up stress and tension from the day or over longer periods of time can build up in your body with a need to be released.
If you don’t partake in any activities or self-care to release this tension it can show up like cravings in the evening (10).
A study looking at the relationship between stress and the drive to eat, found that greater reported stress, both perceived and chronic, was associated with greater cravings, hunger and binge eating of high-calorie foods (10).
Food can be a convenient and effective tool for providing relief by delivering a dose pleasure. The high calorie foods we tend to crave activate the brain reward system, producing a powerful response that reinforces the behaviour (11).
Emotional eating can be a useful tool in the short term but you may want to re-examine this coping mechanism if it becomes too frequent, intense or overpowering.
Building emotional flexibility and learning how to be present with your emotions is a key skill in helping to manage emotional eating.
Find other ways to de-stress and cope with stress and emotions outside of food.
Create your personal tool box to de-stress, relax and reward yourself. Do what makes you feel best, whether it’s going for a walk, reading or relaxing and listening to some easy listening music.
Make it a regular habit to partake in activities that help you un-wind and de-stress most evenings. Prioritize your self-care on a regular basis!
5. Add some pleasure to your evening
Those late-night cravings may be about satisfying your need for some pleasure.
Eating is a pleasurable experience, it lights up the reward system in our brain and provides us with a strong dose of dopamine - a neurotransmitter, also known as the happy hormone (11).
If eating is your biggest source of pleasure in the evening it can be beneficial to sprinkle some pleasure into your evenings. These acts of pleasure don’t need to be breathtaking acts but simple moments of pleasure.
Sprinkling some pleasure into your evenings can be:
Taking a moment to enjoy the sounds of nature
Expressing gratitude or a few moments spent with your pet
Working on a puzzle
Listening to music and cozying up with some tea
Enjoying the sunset
Reading a book
When the intention is there your ability to savour and absorb the pleasure amplifies!
Find other sources of pleasure beside food to enjoy in the evening. Bring mindfulness and an intention to these activities to amplify the pleasure you receive.
6. Include protein at each meal and snacks
Eating a source of protein at meals and snacks increases fullness and prevents the return of hunger (12).
A 2014 study looking at the effects of a normal protein verse a high protein breakfast on food cravings found that the high protein breakfast had a greater reduction in post-meal cravings (13).
Foods high in protein include nuts, seeds, meats, fish, eggs and legumes.
One of my favourite easy ways to incorporate some extra portion is with hemp seeds, they pack 3 grams of protein per tablespoon! They’re also high in magnesium, vitamin E and zinc. You can add hemp seeds to yogurt, avocado toast and grain bowls, just to name a few.
Protein promotes fullness and reduces cravings, incorporate a source of protein at each meal and snacks.
7. Eat Mindfully
Does this sound familiar: you’re watching your favourite series and you grab your bag of chips and before you know it you’re at the bottom of the bag and you don’t know how you got there…
Eating mindfully allows you to receive all the pleasure from the eating experience and by doing so you are satisfied from each eating experience with an amount of food that is right for you.
A 2018 study looking at the effects of mindful eating and craving-related eating found that participants trained in mindful eating principles experienced a significant reduction in cravings and craving-related eating (14).
Here are some Mindful Eating Principles to help you get started:
Bring your attention to the present moment: bring awareness to your thoughts and emotions.
Check in with your internal environment: do you feel any physical sensations? Hunger? Emotions?
Check in with your external environment: how is your eating ambiance? Is it relaxing? Are any distractions present? If so see if you can remove them to be more present with your food.
Give thanks or gratitude for the meal you are about to enjoy.
Bring mindfulness to the smell, and look of the food.
Bring mindfulness to the taste of the food, see how the taste changes overtime.
Put utensils down between bits and check in with your hunger and fullness signals.
Take your time to eat and enjoy each bite!
Mindful eating can help reduce craving-related eating and bring more pleasure and enjoyment from the eating experience.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Late-night cravings are nothing to feel guilty over! It can be a sign from your body that you need something. Evening cravings may also mean you need to remove food rules and enjoy all foods in the day, perhaps some evening self-care would do you good and getting a good night’s rest.
Take some time to turn inwards and discover what is leading you to late-night cravings so you can curb those late night cravings and put an end to them for good!
I'm Serena Benali, a Registered Dietitian and food relationship expert and my mission is to help you reach your happy, healthy, easy-going place with food and body.
Schedule a complimentary discovery call, I would love to guide you to a freer, healthier, happier relationship with food and body!
Written by: Fiona Amos, Dietetics Student