Are you a late-night snacker, prone to munching on leftover pizza while watching Letterman? Do you raid the fridge at 3 a.m. or hit the fast food drive-through when most people are fast asleep?
If so, you may be increasing your risk of obesity and the health problems that go with it, including heart disease and diabetes.
The food-sleep-weight relationship
Research, including studies by researchers at Rush University Medical Center, has shown that irregular sleeping and eating patterns are interacting factors that potentially impact obesity — meaning it's not just what you eat, but when you're eating that matters.
Among the findings of these studies are the following:
- People who go to sleep later and get less overall sleep consume more calories both at dinner and after 8 p.m.; eat more fast food and sugar-sweetened beverages, and less fresh fruit and vegetables; and have higher body mass index (BMI).
- Caloric intake after 8 p.m. may increase a person's risk of obesity, independent of sleep timing and duration.
- Having irregular mealtimes and/or unusual sleep-wake cycles (going to bed very late, waking very late or getting little sleep) contributes to "circadian misalignment," when a person’s behaviors become misaligned with the body's natural rhythms.
According to clinical dietitian Jennifer Ventrelle, MS, RD, this misalignment impacts all of the body's internal regulatory systems, including its ability to appropriately metabolize food.
5 ways to lower your risk
Fortunately, there are some simple ways to ensure that your behaviors and body rhythms are in perfect sync, including the following:
1. Eat frequently (but not after 8 p.m.)
If you go a long time without eating, your body uses hormones to tell your brain that you are hungry. Often times when we feel really hungry, we choose foods such as fast food, potato chips and cookies rather than taking the time to make a healthy choice.
Eating three healthy meals at roughly the same time each day, and supplementing with two or three high-protein snacks (a handful of raw almonds or cashews, raw veggies with hummus, lowfat or nonfat Greek yogurt, a protein bar, etc.) will keep your appetite hormones in check and keep you feeling satiated. So you won't ever feel "starving" and will be less likely to have those late-night binges.
Getting the right amount of sleep — and getting quality sleep — will help keep your circadian rhythms aligned and keep your appetite hormones in check.
2. Avoid "disruptive" foods
We all know saturated fats aren't good for the heart, but according to studies, high fat diets can also disrupt your circadian clock. Foods that are high in saturated fats include high-fat cuts of beef, lamb and pork, chicken with the skin, whole-fat dairy products, butter, cheese, ice cream and lard.
Instead, choose the "healthy" polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats found in certain oils (canola, corn, olive, peanut, sunflower, sesame, soybean and safflower), avocados, olives, nuts (almonds, peanuts, cashews, etc.), sunflower, sesame and pumpkin seeds, soy milk, tofu and fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout and sardines).
3. Put yourself on a sleep schedule
Try to get to bed at roughly the same time each night and wake at the same time each morning. To help you nod off, minimize stimulants that can prevent sleep, such as having a TV or other electronic devices in your bedroom.
It usually takes 15 to 30 minutes to fall asleep, so stop all activities at least a half hour before bedtime to give your mind and body sufficient time to wind down. Getting the right amount of sleep — and getting quality sleep — will help keep your circadian rhythms aligned and keep your appetite hormones in check.
4. Control your eating environment
Ventrelle recommends preparing most of your meals at home rather than eating out, since portions in restaurants tend to be larger and foods may be cooked in a lot of butter or oil.
Designate one eating location, and choose a room without a television so you can focus exclusively on eating.
"A distracted eater is more likely to eat beyond the point where he or she is full," Ventrelle says.
She also recommends keeping unhealthy snack foods out of your home altogether to avoid temptation, especially after dinner or late at night when those cravings hit.
If you must keep treats in your home, aim for portion-controlled, reduced sugar and lowfat alternatives, like 100-calorie snack packs of cookies or pretzels. But even better, stock up on fresh fruits to satisfy your sweet tooth without packing on pounds.
5. "HALT" before you eat
HALT stands for "hurried, agitated, lonely or tired," emotions that often cause people to eat at unscheduled times, overeat and often eat unhealthy comfort foods.
Before you eat, pause for a moment and ask yourself why you're eating. "Give yourself a few minutes to determine whether you're actually hungry — and, just as important — hungry for that specific food, or whether you're eating because you're bored, sad or under duress," Ventrelle advises.
"Just remember that food isn’t a substitute for dealing with your emotions. In fact, emotional eating can make you feel worse, especially if you gain weight as a result. Pausing can help you make mindful choices instead of rashly eating unhealthy foods."