Monday, August 27, 2012

Is evening snacking your downfall?

Do you snack a lot in the evenings? Do you know why you do it?

I once read an article about Sumo wrestlers that explained how they were able to get up to weights of 280-400 pounds or more. They ate — a LOT — and then immediately went to sleep so their bodies could get to work making fat out of the excess calories.

Sumo Wrestler Asashōryū fighting against Kotoshogiku at the January Tournament 2008 (Wikipedia Commons image)
Oh. That was my eating pattern every night of my life! No wonder I'd put on so much weight.

There are many possible reasons (besides WANTING the body of a Sumo wrestler) for evening snacking:

  1. Fatigue. If you stay awake after you're feeling tired, your body might be asking for more fuel to help it resist sleep. Solution: Figure out why you're staying up later than you should, and resolve that issue.  Plan to finish work projects in the morning, let go of your attachment to whatever games or hobbies are keeping you up, or make your bed a more inviting place with new pillows, soft sheets, or a nice sound system.
  2. Habit.  You might associate watching TV with the munchies, or maybe you're in the habit of treating yourself to something tasty at night.  The best way to quit habitual snacking is cold turkey. The first few days you may pace back and forth to the kitchen and feel out-of-sorts without your snack — that's just your inner child rebelling against the loss of treats. Keep yourself calm, keep your hands busy, sit in a different chair, and speak to your inner child with loving firmness. After just a few nights, the battle will be over forever. 
  3. Hunger.  The difference genuine hunger and a snack craving is that genuine hunger is satisfied by a healthy and filling dose of protein, like a bowl of soup, or a piece of grilled chicken left over from dinner. It's alright to give your body a snack of healthy nourishment if it's needed. If you are often hungry in the evenings, it could be that you need a later suppertime, an earlier bedtime, or more protein and healthy fats in your supper to keep you full. 
If you struggle intensely with evening snacking, you may be dealing with Night Eating Syndrome. NES is not fully recognized within the medical community yet, but emerging research – and my personal experience — suggest it is a real, physiological issue. You may have Night Eating Syndrome if you:
  1. Take in more than 50% of your total calories for the day AFTER supper (some sources say 25%).
  2. Binge on carbs — always carbs — in the evening, having 'small' snacks of 200-300 calories (a bowl of cereal, a sandwich, a handful of chips, a couple of cookies, a dab of pasta, a small bowl of ice cream) but keep having one snack after another for several hours. One snack in the evening doesn't indicate NES, whether it's large or small.
  3. Aren't hungry or can barely tolerate food in the morning. (I would not get hungry until at least 2:00 in the afternoon.)
  4. Don't enjoy your evening binges because they're surrounded by guilt. (having a small bowl of ice cream in the evening that you enjoy is NOT a disorder, relax. Just make sure to save up the calories during the day if this is your indulgence of choice.)
  5. The desire to snack is uncontrollable. Willpower is not enough. (I felt like I would run my head through a brick wall if I couldn't have another bowl of cereal at 10pm).
NES is characterized as a sleep disorder. The sufferer lacks brain chemicals (melatonin and leptin) that normally cause sleepiness. People with NES feel driven to eat carbs because their bodies are desperate for building blocks to create serotonin (which converts to melatonin) in order to get past the insomnia.
I solved my Night Eating Syndrome problem by taking this 100 milligram 5-HTP supplement after dinner, well before my snack cravings would normally have set in. 5-HTP is essentially tryptophan (the chemical in turkey that makes people sleepy). The body converts tryptophan into serotonin. Taking the supplement didn't make me immediately sleepy, but it did reduce my cravings to a manageable level. Giving up my evening cereal, chips, bread and other carbs was still unpleasant — I still was in the habit of snacking and still wanted to eat — but it became possible when the chemical imbalance was addressed.

According to Wikipedia, some doctors are having success treating NES with Zoloft, which also affects seratonin levels.

I can't speak for all NES sufferers, but after a dozen years of night eating, I was able to retrain my body. I took the 5-HTP supplent every evening for about 6 months. I learned that, for me, eating even a small dose of carbs leads to an intense craving 20 minutes later, so avoiding the initial dose of carbs lessened my cravings. I learned that my cravings will pass in 10 minutes or less if I don't respond to them. I've also made changes in my career and personal life that have helped me stave off feelings of mild situational depression, and I believe that has helped as well (NES is linked to depression). 

Whatever the cause of your evening binges, they are contributing to an unhealthy lifestyle. It's vital that you pinpoint the cause and find a way to retrain your brain and/or your body.