This article was originally published in February 2013, and has been updated.
It’s been 20 years since I was overweight, and I’ve learned a lot of tips and tricks for staying lean over the years. Think of this as part two to my last article about losing weight without losing your sanity. In this article I’m going to expand on the benefits of going to bed a little hungry.
Anyone who’s read my columns knows I eschew weight loss “miracles” and “magic,” but the trick of going to bed hungry is not that well known, especially when you consider how powerful it is as a tool for weight loss.
But it’s not always easy to do, and I’ll explain how to manage it later. First, let’s get into why you should do it.
It’s important to understand that when it comes to weight loss, calories are everything — the fundamental math has been proven time and again. This trick has nothing to do with food getting stored as fat when you eat before bed – that’s a myth – and everything to do with restricting caloric intake in a smart way. The reason this trick works is because going to bed hungry is the only time of day it’s okay to be hungry!
“Obese people tend to eat little in the morning and much in the afternoon and evening,” wrote nutrition researcher France Bellisle in the Scandinavian Journal of Nutrition. “In extreme cases, a ‘night-eating syndrome’ is observed.”
The importance of eating breakfast isn’t about “revving up metabolism” – another myth – but establishing a healthy meal pattern that keeps you satisfied during the day. If you allow yourself to get hungry during the day, it builds. It builds to the point where, come the end of the day, willpower is overwhelmed and you can be tempted to stuff in lots of unhealthy calories before bed, taking in too much overall for the day and not achieving your desired weight loss.
The smart way to restrict calories is to eat three or four satisfying meals and then after dinner, stop eating. Going to bed a little hungry, a number of days each week, is going to drop the pounds. It’s the smart way to do it because your appetite resets overnight, and you don’t have to worry about runaway “night eating” later on. You start fresh with breakfast the next morning.
Be cautious, however, not to go to bed so hungry you wake up in the middle of the night needing to raid the fridge.
That’s the why, now here are three tips on how to do it:
1. Establish a meal pattern
As I mentioned above, it’s important to focus on three or four meals at regular intervals during the day. Snacking is to be limited as a way to fuel exercise by eating something healthy. The focus should be on eating at regular intervals like breakfast, lunch and dinner.
2. Have all your meals at the dinner table
Doing things like eating on the couch, at your desk or in your car create a snacking mentality that allows you to eat anywhere, at any time. When you program your brain to think that you should only be eating while seated at a proper table (to focus on eating and nothing else) then it makes it a lot easier to resist snacking.
3. Beat late-night snacking
These are a number of tricks, because you may find that at around 9 p.m. you’re starting to feel that hunger, and you want that snack. You need to power through another hour or so to make it until bedtime, and here are some tactics to succeed:
a) Realize that it may be boredom instead of hunger. Chances are you’re busy all day long, and this is the time you’re finally not busy. You’re used to always doing something, and eating is doing something, so you eat. Things you can do instead of eating to relieve this boredom are to stretch, take a short walk, call or send an email to a friend you haven’t spoken with for a while, play a game or write in a journal.
b) Chew gum.
c) Brush your teeth. Most people associate this with an inability to eat so give it a try.
d) Have some hot herbal tea. Make it hot enough so that it takes time to drink in small sips. Don’t burn your tongue, though.
e) Go to bed and read.
Again, you don’t have to do this every day, and you don’t want to be starving, but just a little hungry. Remember that it needs to be coupled with a focus on being “satisfied” during the day rather than “full.” Throw in a regular exercise routine and you’ll be on your way to a healthier, leaner you.
James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary. He writes the syndicated column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Chicago Tribune and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get your free Metabolism Report here.