By: Melissa Mitri, MS, RD

how to stop snacking at night
Image Credit @Getty images via Unsplash

Is nighttime snacking sabotaging your weight loss efforts, but you don’t know how to stop it? It can be hard to know how to stop snacking at night, but not to worry, I’ll be sharing several tricks of the trade that have worked very well with my clients. 

So even if you’re eating well and planning your meals during the day, veering off at night can negate all those good intentions. And the research proves it – snacking at night can slow down weight loss (or possibly stop it altogether, depending on how much you’re having). 

The good news: nighttime snacking can be overcome with new habits, such as planning ahead, getting enough protein, and learning your triggers. Read on to learn why you may be eating at night, 7 tips on how to stop, and what to do instead. 

Why am I eating at night?

We’ve all probably found ourselves searching the pantry late at night for various reasons. But nighttime snacks tend to be high in calories, making it all too easy to overindulge. 

To break this habit, you first need to understand why you’re doing it in the first place.

Let’s dive into the possible reasons behind your late-night snacking habit. 

Your body needs more energy 

Maybe you’re snacking at night because you didn’t eat enough during the day. This may be the case if you’re super hungry at night (a 3 or below on a hunger scale of 1 to 10) and eat until you’re uncomfortably full.

Your emotions are running high

Do you find yourself snacking more at night on stressful or tiring days? Does your nighttime hunger hit quickly and feel urgent? If so, emotional eating may be your trigger.

emotional woman
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You’re bored

Have you ever noticed you’re not hungry, but find yourself in the kitchen anyway? While boredom eating gives short-term pleasure, catching this habit early helps you feel your best long-term.

You’re distracted

A night that begins with your favorite show can easily end in hours of mindless snacking in front of the TV. Distracted eating can look like eating in front of a screen, when working, or even when having a lot on your mind and not being focused on the meal in front of you.

You’re a creature of habit

It could be that your nighttime snacking is simply a habit, just like brushing your teeth or your morning cup of coffee. You can’t figure out a rhyme or reason – but it just happens sort of on autopilot.

You’re thirsty

It’s easy to confuse hunger and thirst, so it could be that you’re snacking at night when you’re really thirsty. 

How to Stop Snacking at Night

Here are my top 7 tried-and-true ways to stop snacking at night, especially when you know you’re not hungry.

1. Know (and plan for) your triggers

What triggers your nighttime eating? TV, stress, or even the sight or smell of food may set you up for late-night munching. 

Try a food and feelings log to understand your nighttime snacking habits. Include the time, your environment, your emotions, your hunger level on a scale of 1 to 10, and what you ate to figure out what’s happening. 

Once you know your unique triggers, plan for how you’ll respond to them. Here are some ideas:

  • Keep your hands busy with knitting, laundry, or a puzzle while watching your favorite show. 
  • Try reading or learning a new language instead of watching TV.
  • On stressful days, wind down with a cup of herbal tea, journaling, a call with a friend, or an evening walk.

2. Eat regular and balanced meals 

When working with my clients, we often discover daytime deprivation sets them up for late-night cravings. A structured eating plan prevents overeating later in the day, as you’ll go about your day (and night) feeling much more satisfied. 

Keep things simple by thinking in terms of “3’s.”

  1. Eat 3 meals and up to 3 snacks a day
  2. Eat every 3-5 hours
  3. Eat all 3 macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats) with each meal

Stay on track by keeping a food journal (I recommend My FitnessPal), setting mealtime reminders on your phone, or give meal planning a try. 

3. Make room for “fun” foods 

Yes, you read that right! It may sound counterintuitive, but making room for fun foods (even chocolate!) during the day actually gives them less power. It often helps even to enjoy a bit of these foods earlier in the day, so that the craving doesn’t build up as the day goes on.

How many times have you said no to that food you really wanted, only to cave and overindulge later? Imagine if you had it from the start. Chances are, you’d end up having less, if at all.

4. Stay hydrated

It’s easy to confuse thirst for hunger. When that feeling strikes, see if a glass of water curbs your cravings. Or try chamomile tea, which can even improve your sleep quality!

Here’s how to stay on top of your hydration:

  • Set a timer to remind yourself
  • Add flavor with sliced fruit
  • Drink water first thing in the morning
  • Eat water-packed produce like cucumbers and berries

Another added bonus of drinking more water is that it is linked to a lower calorie intake. It’s a win-win!

5. Get enough rest

Just like it’s easy to confuse thirst and hunger, it’s also easy to confuse tiredness and hunger. 

Without enough sleep, your hunger hormones get out of whack. You’ll feel hungrier, need more food to feel full, and are more likely to give in to cravings. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.

I know this is often easier said than done, but setting a “time for sleep” reminder and having a relaxing bedtime routine like reading a book, gentle yoga, or drinking tea can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.

6. Prioritize protein

Research shows that higher protein meals earlier in the day reduce unhealthy snacking at night. 

To ensure you meet your protein quota, set a goal to include protein with each meal and snack: 

  • Try shredded chicken in soups, salads, and sandwiches. 
  • Whip up tuna salad for easy weekday lunches. 
  • For protein-packed snacks, try bean dip with vegetables, steamed edamame, Greek yogurt, or hard-boiled eggs. 
  • Lentils, nuts, and seeds make for great salad additions.  

When my clients include protein with every meal (especially breakfast) they see a very noticeable difference in their cravings for snacks at night.

high protein ideas
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7. Discover your hunger signals

Discovering your hunger signals can help you know if you’re truly physically hungry, or if you’re eating for non-hunger reasons, such as boredom, stress, or sadness. 

Here are some ways true hunger appears (it can be so much more than a stomach growl!).

  • Irritability
  • Lack of focus
  • Low energy
  • Feeling empty 
  • Headache
  • Weakness

Before reaching for that nighttime snack, reflect on your hunger. It may be helpful to keep a hunger scale from 1-10 on your fridge. Aim to eat when you’re between 3-4 and stop around 6-7.

For when you are truly hungry (or still working through breaking the nighttime snacking habit), read on for healthy nighttime snack ideas.

Healthier Snack Alternatives

The ideal bedtime healthy snack pairs carbs and protein. This winning combo keeps you filled and satisfied with fewer calories. It also helps your body make melatonin, the hormone that helps lull you to sleep. 

Some foods even have small amounts of melatonin!

Here are 6 healthier snack alternatives to keep on hand for a restful night.

1. Yogurt parfait

Top ¾ cup of Greek yogurt, rich in sleep-supporting tryptophan, with strawberries or kiwi (some of the highest melatonin-containing fruits!)

2. Banana toast

Spread almond butter on whole-grain toast and top with sliced bananas. This snack has magnesium and tryptophan for a good night’s rest.

3. Tart cherry oatmeal

Sprinkle tart cherries and pistachios into ½ cup of oatmeal for the perfect melatonin-rich snack. 

4. Popcorn 

Season three cups of popcorn with nutritional yeast – which packs in flavor, protein, and sleep-friendly B vitamins – for a filling but low-calorie snack. This is one of my personal favorites when I’m craving something salty and crunchy at night.

healthy popcorn

Image Credit @Yulia Khlebnikova via Unsplash

5. Roasted chickpeas

With their protein, carbohydrates, tryptophan, and magnesium, chickpeas make a surprisingly great nighttime snack! Bake lightly oiled and spiced chickpeas at 425˚F until golden brown (about 20 to 30 minutes). 

6. String cheese and whole grain crackers

Pair string cheese with a serving of whole grain crackers for something light, filling, and great for sleep.

Learning How to Stop Snacking at Night is Possible

If you’re stuck in the cycle of nighttime snacking, there is hope! Implementing these 7 tips on how to stop snacking at night can support your weight loss goals.

The first step to stop snacking at night is to know why it’s happening. Are you eating consistently throughout the day? Do your sugar cravings hit like clockwork? Are you feeling physical or emotional hunger? 

At the end of the day, it takes time to break the nighttime snacking habit. Be patient with yourself and the process. Along the way, you’ll learn more about yourself which will help you to establish lifetime healthy eating habits.

And it’s totally okay to enjoy a sweet treat once and a while. My most successful weight loss clients have learned how to have that balance, and you can too.

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