The midnight munchies are gaining recognition as a full scale eating disorder. But is a 2:00a.m. scavenger hunt for Haagen Daz really something to panic about?
Recent research published in Nature Medicine may suggest that when we eat may actually play just as great of a role in weight gain and obesity as how much we eat – or, perhaps an even bigger one. This study helps to shed light on the eat-late-gain-weight controversy, and supports what many nutrition and fitness experts have been calling the cardinal rule of weight loss all along.
Eating at Night Leads to Weight Gain
In the Penn University study, Georgios Paschos, PhD, and his research team eliminated the “clock gene” in the fat cells of a group of mice – the gene that regulates the body’s regular day-time and night-time cycles and functions. Not only did these mice begin eating during the times they normally sleep, but a series of hormonal and metabolic changes also began to take place, kicking their bodies into fat-storage mode.
“Our mice became obese without consuming more calories,” says Paschos. A second group of mice, put on a reversed eating schedule but with clock genes left intact, displayed the same patterns of increased weight gain.
This research takes a closer look at the increasingly common habit of eating at night and Night Eating Syndrome (NES), an eating disorder that affects appetite, sleeping patterns, and is associated with increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Habitual night eaters often lack appetite in the morning through late afternoon, eating most of their calories in the evening and on into the night. This triggers a series of hormonal imbalances that can lead to weight gain, broken sleep patterns, insomnia, and a higher vulnerability to mood disorders like chronic stress and depression.
In healthy individuals, the release of a hormone called leptin causes energy to be used rather than stored as fat, and the appetite to be suppressed when it is time for the body to sleep. Not only were habitual night eaters found to have lower levels of leptin, but disruptions in other hormonal patterns were also triggered, working in unison to make the cycle of night eating, overconsumption of calories and weight gain even harder to break.
How to Re-wind Your Internal Clock & Your Bathroom Scale
But night eaters are far from doomed to a fate of fat. One simple change can help to reset your clock, halt increasing weight gain, and kick start you into a new pattern of weight loss, better sleep, and a better you.
The secret is eating breakfast (and getting up early to eat it). While common place for some, this concept is revolutionary for others, and for night eaters especially, may provoke a few gag reflexes at first. But getting up early and eating a breakfast that includes a good source of protein (think eggs, or yogurt parfait, or nuts with whole grains) is a critical step for resetting an unbalanced metabolic clock.
After just a few mornings of eating breakfast, the body will already begin to adapt and you’ll find you are waking up hungry. Eventually, as the breakfast pattern takes hold, you will take pleasure in increasing the size of this meal and eventually make it the largest meal you eat in the day.
Check out these 4 Easy Delicious Breakfast Ideas for 300 Calories Or Less
A healthy breakfast should give you a boost of energy while also giving you a sense of satiation. It also makes it easier to start eating small meals at regular intervals – every three or four hours – throughout the day, which has also been shown to boost metabolism and help with weight loss. Like breakfast, all your daily meals should feature a healthy source of protein (such as cold water fish, lean poultry, lean steak, high-quality protein powder, yogurt, cottage cheese, beans, nuts, etc.), as well as a plentiful side of raw or steamed high-fiber vegetables or low-glycemic fruit, and a controlled portion of healthy essential fats. This balance will help you avoid energy crashes throughout the day while properly nourishing your body, controlling blood sugar levels, curbing hunger and regulating weight.
By the time dinner rolls around, the typical all-consuming hunger that once regularly attacked you will start to disappear. No longer the raging beast ready to tear into anything chewable, you will start to notice a newfound self-control at this time of day, allowing you to choose a healthier, more nutritious and smaller option.
And then comes the best part — a sense of satisfaction. With your calorie needs taken care of throughout an entire day of healthy, filling meals, your hormonal cycles will start to balance out. Midnight munchies stop physically pestering you, helping you get from dinner to bedtime without rampaging the kitchen cupboards.
And while psychological addictions may continue to linger, a simple change in your regular night time routine will help you eventually squash that bug as well. Instead of downing Doritos in front of the television, try drinking herbal tea, or chewing gum, or molding a wad of play dough in front of the television instead. Your eyes may keep wandering towards the fridge in the beginning, but stick with it for a few more days so that the powers of (re)association can take hold. Before you know it, you’ll soon find that the new habits are replacing the old ones.
Turn the Clock Back & Move Forward towards a Healthier Trimmer Self
Re-shifting your eating schedule so that you are eating more of your calories during the earlier parts of the day can help you break the cycle of eating at night and weight gain. By turning the clock back, you can move forward with your weight loss goals, and towards a newer, more energetic, and happier you.