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Why you eat more at night — and how to curb your hunger

May 6, 2018
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We’ve all heard the advice to close down the kitchen after a certain time, which makes sense: nighttime snacking can quickly get out of hand, and has the potential to seriously derail our weight-loss goals. So why is it so irresistible? Turns out, it’s not just a matter of boredom or weakened motivation. Your body might actually be pushing you towards the pantry or fridge.

A recent study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that participants who felt stressed saw their levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin rise in the evening. At the same time, their bodies produced less peptide YY, a hormone that contributes to feelings of fullness. So if you’re like many who often find themselves feeling overwhelmed and exhausted after a long day, your hormones may be to blame for overeating.

Why you eat more at night — and how to curb your hungerWhy you eat more at night — and how to curb your hunger

This kind of hormonal shift might have been beneficial back in our hunter-gatherer days. “During the daylight, it would have made more sense to prioritize going out to hunt or forage for food. When it was dark, it made more sense to stay close to home and eat,” says lead study author Susan Carnell, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. At the same time, feeling stressed probably meant that your survival was threatened. “So it makes sense to load up on calories while you can, to tide you over if your food source should suddenly disappear,” Carnell adds.

None of this is so useful today, of course. Having ready access to a kitchen stocked with food means it’s easy to scarf down hundreds of calories that we really don’t need. And the threat of a looming work deadline or childcare conflict (the babysitter cancelled again!) doesn’t exactly justify gorging on a pint of chocolate ice cream.

It’s hard to find other behaviors that are as rewarding as food. You could say you’re going to take a nice bath, but the payoff isn’t as intense or immediate.

It’s hard to find other behaviors that are as rewarding as food. You could say you’re going to take a nice bath, but the payoff isn’t as intense or immediate.

Not to mention that eating a salty, sugary or fatty snack activates the brain’s pleasure center in a big way. “It’s hard to find other behaviors that are as rewarding as food,” says Kelly Allison, PhD, Director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. “You could say you’re going to take a nice bath, but the payoff isn’t as intense or immediate.” Drawing the bath takes work — even just a few minutes’ worth — but reaching into a bag of chips is practically effortless.

The urge to snack at night may be even stronger for people who work hard to stick to healthier habits earlier in the day. “In part, people eat at night because of decision fatigue,” explains mindful eating expert Susan Albers, PsyD. Come nighttime, you’re worn out by the hundreds of choices you’ve had to make since waking up and your decision-making skills weaken. Rather than consciously opting for the carrots, you rely on autopilot or impulse and go with the cupcake, Albers says.

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