Aug. 31, 2014 at 8:14 AM ET
If your cravings at night make you resemble a rabid raccoon picking through a dumpster, you're not alone. "Nighttime is by far the most common time to have cravings or feel hungrier," says Dr. Scott Isaacs, an endocrinologist at Emory University and author of Beat Overeating Now!
Blame your hunger on natural biology. Recent research from Oregon Health & Science University says that our circadian rhythms are hard-wired to drive desire for sugary, starchy, and salty foods at night. It is okay to eat later — just don't overeat, which is what often happens when hunger controls a ravenous mind.
To stop your food yearnings from hijacking your night, follow these 7 tips.
Fill Up on Color
Often a craving means your body is missing a vitamin or mineral. "But your cravings tend not to be on target," says Isaacs. For instance, you may want carbs when really you're low on a nutrient like vitamin C, which has been shown to possibly control appetite when you have the right amounts. That's why you should aim to fill up on a variety of produce during the day. This ensures that you flood your body with a wide range of healthy nutrients to prevent cravings from popping up later.
Do Anything Else
If you're craving something specific, like barbecue potato chips or mint chocolate chip ice cream, that's almost always psychological— not a physical need, says Isaacs. You probably don't need to eat, but that doesn't mean it's easy to ignore.
Research shows willpower is like a muscle that depletes during the day, and you hardly have any left at night. So create a diversion to get your mind off food. You can try the gross-out distraction and clean your bathroom, or try chewing peppermint gum or sniffing Vick's VapoRub — research shows menthol scents decrease appetite, says Isaacs.
Eat More Protein
Fill up on protein, especially early in the day. In a 2013 University of Missouri study, a high-protein egg and lean beef breakfast reduced snacking later in the day and regulated activity in reward-driven brain regions more so than eating cereal of equal calories.
Intensify Your Burn
In a meta-analysis of 19 studies published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2012, performing a single short bout of moderately intense exercise—10 to 40 minutes in duration—improves areas of the brain that help with overall self-control. Likely that's because getting your heart rate up boosts blood flow and oxygen to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is involved in decision-making and impulse control.
Runners may be in more luck. A recent American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study showed that men who completed 60 minutes of high-intensity running had a decrease in brain activity related to reward when presented with images of high-calorie foods—and an increase in brain activity when shown pictures of low-cal foods.
Flex Your Mental Muscle
Put some mental distance between yourself and what you crave. If it's a bag of Swedish Fish, pause for a self-pep talk before you indulge. Tell yourself that your craving is "just a thought" and imagine "stepping away" from it. That two-second exercise gives cravings less power since you stop seeing the urge as something you "must have right now," suggests a recent study in the journal Appetite.
Go Low-GI for Dinner
Swap the pasta dinner for chicken with veggies and a side of quinoa. One study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that when overweight or obese men ate a meal high on the glycemic index—processed carbs and sugar are both high-GI, for example—brain activity in reward and craving regions of the brain increased compared to when they ate low-GI foods.
Stop Binge-Watching TV
Staying up late to finish a season of Game of Thrones not only saps your sleep, but it throws off your circadian clock. And research shows when you're sleepy or follow a wacked-out work schedule, your cravings and hunger increase. Clock at least 7 hours of shuteye every night and try to keep regular bed and wake times.
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