TORONTO - Every fall, Carol Leighton buys a bag of Halloween candy she can dip into after supper. Come winter, she indulges in a few glasses of wine before bed, or succumbs to her love of chocolate by eating ice cream or cookies. Occasionally, she will pick up a lemon meringue pie at the grocery store, eating a slice every night until it's gone.
"I buy the bigger size because it's more economical than the smaller one," laughs the 47-year-old, a sales manager in Toronto. "My cycle of eating is unhealthy but you get hooked on sugar, and then it becomes a habit."
Snacking at night is one of the rituals of our food-abundant society, whether it's a bowl of cereal or a bag of chips. But as pleasurable as it is, post-supper eating does little to boost our health.
"Our metabolic rate starts to shut down at 7 o'clock and takes a sharp drop after 9," points out Helene Charlebois, a registered dietitian nutritionist who runs her own consultancy in Ottawa. "Anything you eat in surplus calories, you'll store."
Health experts agree that our nocturnal cravings for sweet or salty snacks often stem more from habit than hunger, and can be symptomatic of other things going on in our lives. Dr. Sonja Wicklum, who works at the Ottawa Civic Hospital Weight Management Clinic, says if we eat balanced meals throughout the day, there would be little need for eating after dinner and we'd sleep better through the night.
"We want to design our food well so it's not keeping us up," says Wicklum. "Sleep is important for metabolism and energy the next day. Bad sleep affects mood and our hearts; it affects many things."
This, experts agree, means avoiding caffeine found in coffee, tea and chocolate, which can keep us awake at night, as well as spicy foods and food with high fat content that often translates into heartburn or indigestion. Foods that give you a sugar burst without any nutritional content, like candy or potato chips, should also be avoided, since they can contribute to obesity. Eating before bed essentially wakes up a digestive system that's ready to wind down.
Charlebois says if you must snack at night, limit your food or drink to 100-150 calories.
"Half a cup of orange juice is a serving so if you want a larger glass, dilute it with sparkling water; we drink a lot of our calories, " she says. "It's not what you choose, it's how much you choose."
To help stop snacking altogether, Anna Leiper, a dietitian in Halifax, recommends the "H.A.L.T. principle," which poses questions about why you're eating: Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired (or bored)?
If you are actually hungry, Leiper suggests a small portion of food that has protein: yogurt, cheese and crackers, fruit, pita and hummus, a small glass of milk, even peanut butter on toast. If it's not hunger driving you to snack, she says you have to distract yourself.
"Find an alternative," says Leiper. "I encourage people to brush their teeth. That changes the whole feeling in your mouth because when you think of food you salivate. If you're angry, do something physical. If you're tired, go to bed. If you're bored, distract with your hands, like housework, knitting or a craft so you can't eat while you're doing it."
Breaking the habit of what experts call "mindless eating" can be tough. Their recommendations include eating the not-so-healthy foods that you love only when you go out, and eating snacks at the table instead of in front of the television or computer. Some of Wicklum's patients have even given up television, in order to break their cycle of snacking in front of it. Healthy habits essentially beget healthy habits.
"I had a patient cut out her snacking by going to bed earlier, so then she woke up earlier with more energy, which meant she had time for a 15-minute walk," says Leiper.
"She lost 10 pounds in a month, which is a very high amount for someone to lose. And it's because she started a positive cycle."