First of all let's get something straight: We have all been there. It gets late at night, we've had a long day and we feel those hunger pangs hit us. We don't want to make a big meal, so we reach for that snack instead.
Of course when it's late at night it's all too easy for that snack to be something calorie-laden, like a big bowl of ice cream. Unfortunately this is a decision that sets many people back. It sneaks in extra calories that undo our hard work earlier in the day, messes with brain chemistry and can throw our sleep schedule for a loop as we try to go to bed with full stomachs. Yet like every other behavior we've discussed, we can control late night snacking through the formation of healthy, specific habits. It can be as easy as 1-2-3, as we've outlined below.
Habit One - Preemptive Snacking
The preemptive strike is an idea borrowed from the military; if you know trouble is coming, take control by moving first instead of waiting it out. One of the most common admissions among late night snackers is that we know it's a habit. We go for the same snacks night after night, in our little bedtime ritual, because we often get hungry at the same time every evening. Instead of just letting the problem keep coming up right when we're at our most tired and weakest, why don't we find a way to stop it while we're at our peak?
In other articles, we've discussed the power of controlled snacking throughout the day to manage pangs and cravings. Late night cravings aren't a special case, and can be managed much the same way. Earlier in the day we can choose a healthy snack for ourselves instead. A tasty peppers-and-avocado sandwich, a few slices of apple, a handful of nuts; the variety of healthy choices is endless, so find your taste and make it up in advance. Perhaps include making the snack while you're making lunch or breakfast, and set it aside to wait.
Once a healthy alternative is chosen and reserved specifically for our evening enjoyment, it is important to pick the time that we have our snack. Since going to sleep on a full belly can cause all sorts of trouble for our sleep patterns and brain chemistry, ideally our last meal should be three hours before bed. But be sure not to wait too long between snack and bed because new cravings can cause our resolve to weaken.
Shifting the habit:
To ease into your new routine, start out by having your snack about 1.5 to 2 hours before your bedtime. This is a narrow enough window that your body can have a chance to settle its meal and let you rest properly without disrupting your rest cycle too much. After a day or two to get used to this schedule, begin moving the time back by five minutes each night. Each step gives you more time between meal and bed, and in 30-60 days you'll be regularly enjoying your nightly snack 3 hours before bedtime without fail.
Habit Two - Closing the Kitchen
Controlling our environment is an important step in controlling our diet. Smokers trying to quit often report that it's hardest to do when others around them are smoking, or when they put themselves in an environment where smoking is an option. The same holds true for snacking; when we see the option readily available, it gets harder to say no. So one important step once we've had our healthy pre-bed snack is to close the kitchen for the night.
Shifting the habit:
The trick here is to use mnemonic devices and environmental clues to help take control. Don't go to the kitchen for your last snack absently, head there while saying, "This is my last trip to the kitchen tonight." Mark the time, have your snack, and then say "closing time" aloud. Make a sign in big letters saying 'CLOSED' and hang it on the door to the kitchen, or over the refrigerator handle. Put up clues to remind yourself that you've made the commitment and you are going to stick to it!
Habit Three--Setting the Scene
Once the kitchen is officially "closed," help redirect your mind from snacking mode to bedtime mode. With a few subtle changes, you can psychologically prepare yourself for rest, relaxation and, eventually, sleep--an equation that doesn't have room for snacking.
Shifting the habit:
Floss and brush your teeth immediately after your snack instead of waiting until you go to bed, so you have a sense of being done for the day. Also, light a scented candle or incense to replace the scent of food aromas that may linger and distract you from your commitment.
Again, late night snacking is nothing to feel ashamed of. Our bodies get hungry, and sometimes we actually do need to eat a bit more food. The key is understanding that if we take in more calories than we burn, we're not going to lose the weight and maintain healthy eating habits. But it is also important to understand that it only takes small steps and habits that we can build with only 30 to 60 days of work to take back control of our snacking tendencies, and make them work for us instead of against us.
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