FreshStart Check-In, And Coach Beth On Night-Time Eating

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RIP, my night-time cereal habit
RIP, my night-time cereal habit

Dear FreshStarters: How's it going? How was your last week? Are your goals making sense? Please post your progress as a comment below. (For background on FreshStart, please click here and here. It’s not too late to join by posting your comment here, and there are still prizes available!)

I blush to admit this, but I really do believe that part of the reason I remained single through my thirties was that I so love to read and eat at night. Nothing could make me happier at the end of the day than settling into bed with a great novel and a box of cereal or a can of corn kernels. How could I marry? How could a husband possibly understand that I preferred fiction and carbs to him?

Happily, I did ultimately find such a man, but just because he understands my night-time vices doesn't mean I should retain them. I mean, the fiction part can stay; but the eating-and-reading thing, the feeling that I want to be eating as I read, page after page, has to go. Hence the flower tribute to my last (empty) box of nighttime cereal, at the right.

When we launched FreshStart two weeks ago, I pledged to give up my night-time cookies and replace them with cereal. Last week I shared the realization that cereal is no good if you eat half a box of it. So now, inspired by the excellent insights below from Coach Beth, I'm prepared to shift altogether to eating fruits or vegetables at night. Beth — our wellness coach, Dr. Beth Frates — wrote the post below as a response to Rachel's query about nighttime cereal, but I wanted to make sure everyone saw it. She helped me see that my evening carbs are effectively tranquilizers, and there are much healthier ways to calm down at night:

Ah....the dreaded cereal at night conundrum. Who hasn't experienced that? Well, the draw of the carbohydrate, the often hidden sugar (but not in the oatmeal you are writing about unless it is instant with added sugar), the cereal... It is so easy to prepare, and it tastes so good. It seems "safe" enough.

Well, depending on the type of cereal you are consuming no matter what time of the day, it can set you up for the sugar cycle. Again, this has to do with the sugar content and whether you are consuming a simple carbohydrate in your cereal. It goes like this, you consume the cereal, you get a spike in blood sugar, your body responds by releasing insulin from your pancreas to counteract that sugar spike, then the sugar is removed from the blood stream and goes into cells, hence you are hungry again because you have low blood sugar. So what do we do, we eat more. This is the vicious sugar cycle no matter what the time of day.

OK. Now to the night time consumption of calories. It is back to the basic principle of calories in (energy in) needs to balance calories out (energy out) or in the case of weight loss the scale needs to be tipped significantly on the energy-out side of the equation. Thus, if you ate nothing all day and finally came home at 9 pm, would it be bad to eat a little food? No, having a balanced meal with lean protein, vegetables, fruit and complex carbohydrates from whole grains would not necessarily be "bad." But, what if you already had three meals and two snacks during the course of the day, and you felt like reaching for the cereal or oatmeal right before bed? Then, perhaps it is time for a glass of water with lemon, a walk around the block, a quick dash up and down the stairs, or a chat with a good friend instead of the cereal.

Eating after dinner is a common issue as many American sit and watch TV at night, which is a set-up for "mindless" eating. Simply strategizing around this "habit" often reduces calorie counts by over 300 a day. Thus, nipping this habit in the bud can create changes in energy balance with the result being a tipping of the scale to a lesser weight. I have worked with several people around this very issue, and each has come up with his or her own personalized solution.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]For some people, consuming carbs brings about an increase in serotonin, which leads to an improved mood, while with others the carbs may actually lead to increased relaxation and sleepiness. So, there is some physiology behind this "desire."[/module]

You asked specifically, "What is it about wanting/needing to feel full before going to sleep?" This is a common feeling and then satisfying this feeling becomes a common habit, well known to millions of Americans. Why? Great questions. The answer is complex. I will try to simplify it. There is research that demonstrates that carbs can increase levels of serotonin--known as one of the "happy" neurotransmitters and it is, in fact, an active ingredient in many anti-depressants. For some people, consuming carbs brings about an increase in serotonin, which leads to an improved mood, while with others the carbs may actually lead to increased relaxation and sleepiness. So, there is some physiology behind this "desire."

However, we need to take in the big picture. If you are looking to relax before bed, it is best to try soaking in a warm bubble bath or playing soft music or reading a good book or taking deep breaths or meditating or something you personally know relaxes you. If we are looking for a mood elevation before bed, again trying other strategies like talking with a good friend or having an engaging conversation with your spouse can also increase serotonin levels. There are a lot ways to improve mood. In fact, regular exercise has been shown to improve mood with increased levels of serotonin, similar to that of an antidepressant. Of course, this is regular sustained exercise such as 30 minutes at least 5 days a week for over a month. However, it takes anti-depressants almost as long and sometimes longer than that to kick in.

So, I guess the real question is why are we heading for the cereal at bedtime? Habit? Mood? Stress? Journaling these thoughts helps people who are trying to "kick the habit" of night-time eating. Instead of consuming calories, write down what you are thinking. Again, this is one suggestion that works for some people. It will take thinking and experimenting to come up with the solution that works best for you.

I used to reach for the cereal as well. Not sure exactly why. But now, when that desire strikes me, I reach for an apple and water. The apple is a carb with fiber that fills me up and the water is an additional filler. At least this way, I feel I am eating something that is "nutrient dense" and could help lower my cholesterol given the soluble fiber it contains. Of course, I prefer not to reach for anything and go to bed with that slightly lighter feeling. But I am being honest and simply sharing with you a strategy that I use when the urge to eat carbs creeps into my mind at night.

Another important point is that if we go to bed slightly hungry we are ready for a healthy breakfast in the morning. Many people advise starting the day with some protein, whole grains, fruits and perhaps even vegetables. If you have eaten a whole box of cereal the night before, chances are you will not be hungry for breakfast. Again, research shows that people who eat breakfast are more successful at weight management and weight loss compared to those who do not eat breakfast. This is why eating a healthy breakfast is one of the habits to add in the Mayo Clinic Diet book that I discussed in a previous post.

I hope this is helpful and at least party answers your question. Other people may want to chime in and add to my ideas. Please feel free. It is always good to share what works for you as your strategies might resonate with other people or spark an idea for someone else.

This program aired on May 2, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.