Going to bed on a full belly sounds like the best recipe for a perfect night of sleep. This could not be farther from the truth – it is just as important for our body to settle in ‘rest & recovery’ mode so that we wake up feeling rested. Scarfing down the calories before bed can be a telltale sign of a more serious health concern. Typically, we eat to feed an emotion, or it could simply be that we are not eating enough of the right nutrient-rich meals throughout the day.
It is a gamble to say what exactly is the cause of that nighttime eating, but the truth about restrictive dieting can be cold – really, if you have noticed yourself being consistently cold, you could be lacking the appropriate amount of daily nutrient needs for your body to metabolize 😉. Properly fueling the body with an adequate number of calories can be challenging, confusing, and even hard to understand. When there is an insufficient intake of a daily needs the first thing to crave is sugar. It sounds strange, yet it is so accurate.
Think about it – have you mindlessly grabbed for something sweet or salty right before bed? It could be that you are a late-night snacker, prone to raiding the fridge at 3 am or hitting the fast-food drive thru while most people are fast asleep. Eating right before you lay down to sleep could be hindering the quality of sleep we get as well as putting a damper on that weight loss journey. Believe it or not, there is a specific time that the circadian rhythm (natural sleep pattern) starts to prepare the body for sleep and any disruptions may be affecting the way that we live our lives.
“It is not what you eat, but when you eat that matters the most,” according to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition – a study of more than 110 university students were observed to research this phenomenon. The students wore a monitor that determined how much they ate, what time, and how well they slept. The study proved some moving data that the timing of our meals could be the key to beating sugar cravings and obesity.
Weight gain and obesity have been on the rise from the late 1990’s to 2020 as the greatest health concern world-wide. Since we are seeing an increasing rate in adolescents becoming overweight or obese it is a critical development to understand how eating before bed can lead to weight gain and cause other leading health concerns. We will talk about the process that our body undergoes while preparing for sleep and how that can be affecting the way we fight off disease and prevent it.
Fortunately, there are some tips to ensure that your nighttime behaviors and body rhythms are in perfect sync. Your guide to a healthy food-sleep-weight relationship is waiting for you!
When does your body prepare for sleep?
Getting to bed on time is all thanks to the dim-light melatonin onset (DLMO) which is when the body begins to wind down for the night by producing the sleep chemical – melatonin – so that you can prepare for sleep. Most of us start experiencing this onset around 8 pm, but the timing does change depending on your varying work shifts. The ideal way of thinking is that eating earlier in the evening may prevent any sleep disruptions from night-time indigestion.
What does that mean?
Our circadian rhythm can directly affect our metabolism since that is our internal body clock. For some of us that is the standard night and day while for others who work different shifts may notice complications with finding a consistent sleep/eating schedule. The American Journal mentions that, “studies have proved having irregular mealtimes and/or unusual sleep-wake cycles (going to bed late, waking up very late, or getting little sleep) contributes to circadian misalignment,” meaning that a persons behavior can be affected by the body’s natural rhythm. I am going to include a related post with how to handle anxiety and sleep.
"Mindful eating replaces self-criticism with self-nurturing. It replaces shame with respect for your own inner wisdom."
The findings of these studies show the behaviors and body rhythms that are in sync and how they work together by practicing the following:
1. Eat often & frequently (before 8 pm, but not after)
Going too long without eating is not a good idea – the body uses hormones to tell the brain to eat. There is a great connection between the stomach and the mind. How else can we explain feeling full or needing more? When that hunger pain comes up, we often grab for processed and packaged food because that is the closest and easiest thing to go for.
Eliminating this sensation starts with eating roughly three wholesome meals each day (vegetables, fruit, grains, beans/legumes/nuts, minerals/vitamins). Including high-protein snacks like nuts or seeds, or raw veggies with hummus can keep those hormones in check. They are filling and nutrient-rich foods that keeps us feeling “satiated and full,” without those late-night cravings.
2. Put yourself on a consistent sleep schedule
Getting to sleep around the same time every night and waking up during the same time in the morning minimizes the likelihood of a disruptive sleep pattern. Most people start to feel the effects of melatonin around 8 pm and avoiding stimulants that may prevent sleep, such as harsh lights, TV, or other electronic devices.
On average, it takes between 10 to 30 minutes to fall asleep, so removing any sleep depriving activities before that time may help in getting the right amount of sleep – and improving quality at the same time – this may help in keeping the natural circadian rhythm aligned with your hormones.
3. “HALT” yourself before you grab for food
Food is a substitute for dealing with another emotion that is causing that hunger pain. In fat, disordered eating is related to emotional eating which often makes the situation worse, especially by leading to potential weight gain. Mindful eating can help in conscious healthy decision making. Pause for a moment before eating and ask this simple question, “why am I eating – am I hungry or am I bored,” once this question is answered the deciding factor will be much simpler.
HALT is an acronym for “hurried, agitated, lonely, or tired” these emotions often cause someone to overeat and reach for those unhealthy comfort foods. It may help to read how to be more present and focus on mindful eating when you are reaching for something to snack on. You may surprise yourself and learn how to develop new habits that carry over into other realms of your life.
4. Control that eating environment (what you keep nearby)
Eating and sleeping, two sacred things that are meant to be designated in two separate
places, but somehow have merged into the same. It is common to eat in a dinning room where there is access to a TV or other electronic devices. This can be disruptive and lead to mindless eating. How can one really put focus into eating when we are busy focusing on something else? I like to say, “a distracted eater is more likely to eat beyond the point where he or she is full,” because it is so easy to keep grabbing for more without thinking.
Avoiding temptation all together seem easy until that clock ticks closer to midnight. If keeping treats in the home is a must, aim for portion control, reduced sugar, and low-calorie alternative. Having a stock of fresh fruits or veggie slices to satisfy that sweet tooth will help without packing on the pounds.
5. Avoid eating “HARSH” foods
When those nightly cravings sneak up it is easy to grab for something high in saturated fats, but as we know, they are not good for the heart. Foods that are high in fat can also be disruptive to the digestive system and our circadian clock. Think about limiting animal proteins and dairy right before you lay your head to rest.
Instead, choose something with a “healthier” approach. Meal prepping and having ready-to-go foods is an instant life saver while providing mindful eating. Eating before bed is not recommended, but if those tantalizing cravings are just too much, an apple with a slice of cheese will be enough to fill those cravings while holding you over until the morning.
Keep in mind that food is not a substitute and cannot be treated as one. if the desire for food is picking at the mind then there may be cause for another underlying health issue whether it is not eating enough throughout the day or a lack of nutrients. What matters the most is what you are eating and how often exercise plays a role in your life. Our waistline may increase so subtle that we have no clue the impact of this nighttime eating and our sleep deprivation.
The cycle is never ending and plays a significant role in how we respond to daily life. When I do not get enough sleep, the very next day I can tell that I crave more unhealthy foods and it mentally takes a tole on me because the struggle it takes to avoid those cravings take more out of me. What has worked for me in getting quality sleep and preventing nighttime cravings is being prepared with the right fresh fruits and having mindfulness.
I am just like everyone else and still get cravings, what separates me from others is that I do not give in easily. I am always prepared with low-caloric nutrient-rich foods like grapes, oranges, and other tasty fruits! A healthy lifestyle is made from various lifestyle changes and although I cannot control what happens throughout my day, I can control what I eat and how I prepare for a good night of sleep.
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