How to keep late night snacking under control

If you find late night munching irresistible, research into how the brain responds to snacking offers tactics that can help you back off those unwanted binges.

A study at Brigham Young University (BYU) that analyzed MRI images of people’s brains shows that your neurons respond differently to foods in different ways depending on the time of day. The neural response to high-calorie foods, the research shows, is dampened in the evening.

That means you need to eat more in order to feel satisfied.

“It may not be as satisfying to eat at night so you eat more to try to get satisfied,” says researcher Travis Masterson.

The study also shows that our thoughts tend to be more focused on food at night, even if we don’t feel particularly hungry.

Further complicating our attempts at not eating at night are our emotions.

A study of eating habits at the University of Buffalo shows that how you feel at any given moment is more influential in determining what and how much you eat than the amount you had previously planned to eat.

“The crux of the disconnect is the divide between thoughts and feelings. Planning is important, but feelings matter, and focusing on feelings and understanding their role can be a great benefit,” says researcher Marc Kiviniemi.

So even if you’re planning not to snack at night, your feelings as you sit in your living room obsessed with the food that’s calling your name from the kitchen can override the firmest of plans.

“If you’re sitting back conceiving a plan you may think rationally about the benefits of eating healthier foods, but when you’re in the moment, making a decision, engaging in a behavior, it’s the feelings associated with that behavior that may lead you to make different decisions from those you planned to make,” warns Kiviniemi.

The upshot of these studies is that you can’t merely think you can successfully deprive yourself of the pleasure you get from snacking unless you substitute another pleasurable activity for the one you’re denying yourself.

“Think seriously about how you’re going to implement the plans you make to change your behavior, and that includes not only the feeling component, but how you plan to overcome a negative reaction that might surface during a diet.”

One of the researchers at BYU, says that just knowing that snacks at night are less satisfying helps him resist. “I tell myself, this isn’t probably as satisfying as it should be,” says researcher Travis Masterson. “It helps me avoid snacking too much at night.

During my own night time snacking, I sometimes allow myself a few, very carefully measured out potato chips. I find I can limit the number I eat by having an apple along with the chips. I take a bite of the apple in between each munch of chips and I find that the moist, sweet taste of the apple contrasts perfectly with the saltiness of the chips and helps me curtail my snacking.

In keeping your late night snacks under control, you have to find your own individual “apple” – something satisfying and pleasurable that helps you keep from overindulging.


Carl Lowe

By Carl Lowe

has written about health, fitness and nutrition for a wide range of publications including Prevention Magazine, Self Magazine and Time-Life Books. The author of more than a dozen books, he has been gluten-free since 2007.