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How to Avoid Weight Gain When Eating Late

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You worked too late and have nothing in the fridge, and your howling stomach is begging for something, anything—even that drive-thru temptation you know is off limits. We’ve all done it. And while yet another study has concluded that avoiding late-night meals may be the secret to diets, nutritionists say there is a way to feed your hunger at night without weight gain. (Also check out these 10 Snacking Mistakes That Cause Weight Gain.)

A new study published in the journal Cell Metabolism found that mice that had access to the same high-fat diet for only eight hours, namely during daylight hours, were healthier and slimmer than those who had access to the food for the whole day—despite consuming the same number of calories. But is what’s good for the mouse good for the human? The answer comes down to self-control.

“Food restriction in humans is much less controlled, and relies more on keeping a healthy environment and willpower—something many people struggle with,” says Heather Mangieri, R.D., a board-certified specialist in sports nutrition and spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “The evening hours are when most people will admit to out-of-control eating, since that’s the time when the work is done and it’s time to relax.”

The skinny on the matter, though? Sometimes late-night eating is the only choice. With longer work hours and post-work obligations, some days you don’t even think about dinner until 8 p.m. The good news, according to Mangieri, is it’s less about what time you’re dining, and more about what foods are on your plate. (See The Best Late-Night Snacks.) Here, what to do if you have to eat late.

Cut the Carbs
“If dinner is at 8 p.m. and bedtime is two hours later, the meal size should be smaller and include a smaller amount of carbohydrates,” she says. “Stick to a serving of lean protein and load up on veggies so you’ll still meet your nutrient needs without all the late-night calories.” 

Don't Skip Dinner!
While the drive-thru probably isn’t a viable option, neither is skipping a meal altogether: “Going to bed with a growling stomach can make it difficult to fall asleep, or worse, increase the temptation to eat in the middle of the night if hunger disrupts sleep,” Mangieri concludes. (If you’ve been hitting the gym extra hard lately, a late night meal may actually be good for you! Find out how Eating Late at Night May Help You Burn Calories.)

Curb Middle-of-the-Night Hunger
“To tame a hungry stomach before bed, eat a small serving of protein, such as a hard-boiled egg or a piece of cheese,” she says—just like a mouse might do.