You’ve probably heard the term body clock or circadian rhythm, an internal system that guides wake and sleep cycles, energy highs and lows during the wake cycle, and according to a new study published in the journal Obesity, hunger and cravings in the evening for sweet, starchy, salty snacks. Our ancestors may have needed this natural internal phenomenon to guide “energy storage” during times of famine or dire food scarcity, but with food available 24/7, we sure don’t need extra nudging to eat more, especially at night.
To be clear, many things contribute to our desire to eat or to eat more, when we are not really hungry. Certainly if we are active, we may need more calories to maintain energy balance. If you skip breakfast, you may indeed be hungrier later in the day, as your body tries to capture additional calories to make up for the missed meal. But this new study suggests that as an independent factor, circadian rhythm may be contributing directly to obesity in some individuals, because it provokes an intensified hunger specifically at night, which is when we really don't need extra calories. For one thing, human physiology suggests that the body may not handle sugar calories quite as efficiently when your metabolic rate is slowing down, as it does naturally at night. And because your body is preparing for sleep, you may end up storing more of those calories consumed late at night, especially if they are excess calories. Researchers also point out that the natural circadian rhythm depended on signals from diminishing sunlight – as evening approached and natural light waned, the body’s metabolic rate would begin to slow down. With the advent of artificial light, we stay up later and “look for things to do,” like eating, even If we’re not hungry. And the foods we are drawn to are high calorie, high fat, or high sodium and typically include processed grain carbohydrates – we need those to fuel us when we are on the move during the day, not at night when we are sitting around and slowing down. Eating late into the night also means you may end up sleeping fitfully, since going to sleep with food in your stomach is not a recipe for comfortable slumber.
So how do you thwart this appetite regulation reality that may fueling night cravings and significantly contributing to weight gain in many of us?
- Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast
- Make sure each meal contains a serving of protein, which will help to keep you satiated
- Never go for more than 4 hours without having a meal or healthy snack
- Eat larger meals earlier in the day when you need the energy and your body’s metabolism is operating at its fastest pace
- Always test hunger by having a zero calorie beverage like water, unsweetened tea or club soda to see if you’re actually thirsty
- Have a warm, comforting beverage like hot tea after dinner and then brush your teeth to “close off the night” in terms of feedings
- Be mindful when you start to feel cravings and substitute other behaviors instead of food
- Don’t keep tempting food and snacks in your home – you won’t outsmart a strong craving.
Amy Hendel is a health professional, journalist and host of Food Rescue, Simple Smoothies and What’s for Lunch? Author of Fat Families, Thin Families and The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, she tweets health headlines daily @HealthGal1103. Catch her guest appearances on Marie! on Hallmark and other local and national news and talk shows.
Published On: May 09, 2013