It happens to all of us: You’re at home at night when suddenly a craving hits. Never mind that you’re not actually famished — you need food now. And, unfortunately, you’re probably going to eat more than you should.
According to new research from Brigham Young University, there’s science behind this phenomenon. In a new study published in the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior, researchers discovered that some areas of the brain don’t get the same “food high” at night as they do during the day.
For the study, scientists used MRIs to measure how people’s brains respond to high- and low-calorie food images in the morning and at night. They discovered that images of food, especially high-calorie options, spurred brain spikes throughout the day, but those responses were lower in the evening.
Researchers said this indicates we’re not as satisfied by food at night and tend to eat more to try to feel as satiated as we do during the day. They also discovered that we’re more obsessed with food at night, even when our hunger and fullness levels are the same as they are at other times of the day.
That has a few implications for our health — and none of them are good, says registered dietitian nutritionist Beth Warren, author of Living a Real Life with Real Food. “Typically, eating at night leads to overeating on poor food choices and is not out of hunger,” she tells Yahoo Health. “People usually grab sweets or salty chips, which may calm the mind but trigger overeating.”
But we’re fighting an uphill battle, says registered dietitian nutritionist Charlotte Martin, corporate dietitian at Medifast. She tells Yahoo Health that our bodies are actually physiologically programed to consume more in the evening, which intensifies cravings that we might otherwise brush off during the day.
That can lead to weight gain, which is linked to a slew of negative health consequences, including an increased risk of developing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and even some forms of cancer.
Eating before going to bed can also give you acid reflux, points out Gina Keatley, a registered dietitian nutritionist practicing in New York City. In addition to the immediate discomfort, reflux can erode your teeth and damage your esophagus.
While we may want to eat more at night, experts say it’s possible to keep those cravings at bay. Martin recommends eating more during the day, making sure to include healthy snacks between meals that contain protein and healthy fats, and having a satisfying but not oversized dinner. This will help keep you satiated into the night and reduce the temptation to eat a huge dinner and snack afterward.
You can also train yourself to eat less at night, Warren says. She recommends figuring out why you tend to eat more in the evening: Do you do it while you’re watching TV? Are you stressed more at the end of the day?
Then, come up with a mental list of things you can doinstead, such as laundry, talking on the phone, or going for a walk.
And finally, if you can’t fight the urge to snack at night, just opt for healthier choices in smaller portions. Martin recommends reaching for a protein-based snack that will help fill you up, such as a half-ounce of almonds, a hard-boiled egg, or low-fat Greek yogurt.
Little changes like those can have a big impact on your waistline — and your health.