The old weight loss adage that you shouldn’t eat after 9 p.m. is mostly rubbish: If you aren’t going over your caloric intake for the day, eating late won’t make you gain weight.
But if your one late night snack quickly becomes two (or an entire bowl of popcorn/ice cream/potato chips), it can be easy to go over your energy needs.
One strategy some dieters have used to combat overeating in the evening? They brush their teeth immediately following their snack. This can signal to you that you’re done eating both psychologically and by making everything a little less appetizing.
But brushing your teeth immediately after eating isn’t the only pre-bed ritual that can help minimize diet destruction at night. Here are five other to-dos that can make bed time do double-duty as weight loss time:
1. Pick the right evening snack.
It’s OK to eat! According to the Mayo Clinic, eating five to seven small daily meals including lean protein, healthy fats, whole grains, and fruits and veggies is the best strategy for weight loss—and if you’re spacing those out every couple of hours, eating 60 minutes before bed should be OK.
But you’ve got to snack on the right stuff: Late-night snacks get a bad rap because they’re usually unhealthy, easy-to-grab indulgences that are high on calories and low on nutrition. And fatty food can actually mess up your sleep while it digests.
Instead, eat a combination of protein with a complex carbohydrate: Protein synthesis is actually increased while you sleep, meaning the nutrient builds muscle better while you’re in bed. And both protein and complex carbs will help you stay full and sated through the night. If you’re on the Nutrisystem program and you know you tend to get hungry at night, save one of your snacks for that time. They’re made with the right balance of nutrients. It doesn’t hurt that they taste good, too! Or, try an apple with low-fat string cheese, or whole grain cereal with low-fat milk.
Just don’t eat your snack in front of a screen: A 2013 review of past studies found that people who eat in front of the TV, while playing games or reading consume more calories while they’re sitting there, especially later in the day. So don’t sit on the couch with a bag or bowl of anything—have your snack at the table while you’re not distracted, and then return to your evening activities.
2. Make yourself a warm drink to burn those calories.
There are lots of times when drinking water can be helpful with weight loss, but slugging back gallons before bed could actually hurt: Drinking lots of water before bed can cause late-night urination urges that can interrupt sleep. And getting a good night’s sleep is, as we’ll see, the most important thing you can do for weight loss at night.
But you may still confuse hunger for thirst, and you might just like something to drink in the evening. Give your beverage some weight loss-boosting powers and have something that will help you sleep: Use one chamomile tea bag and a bag of decaffeinated green tea to create a mixed tea.
Why this mix? Chamomile is traditionally used as a sleep aid, though clinical studies on its effects are few—one study suggests that the flavonoid apigenin may be at work by attaching to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain, which can have a hypnotic effect. Leaving the caffeine out of the green tea means you won’t be overstimulated, and the green tea itself may help with weight loss: In one study, those who drank two cups of it each day for 90 days lost 2.6 more pounds than those who didn’t drink the tea.
And the warmth may help stave off hunger: In a 2008 Penn State study, those who consumed hot liquids an hour before a meal ate 134 fewer calories when they sat down to eat.
3. Set yourself up for weight loss success tomorrow.
Do the future version of you some favors: Prep your food for tomorrow while you’re still up tonight. If you’re on Nutrisystem, pick out which meals and snacks you want to eat tomorrow and set them aside. Hardboil a bunch of eggs you can have on hand when mid-meal munchies hit. Chop up a whole bunch of fruits and veggies and then divide them into separate bags or containers so you have healthy SmartCarb and Vegetable options on hand all day. You can even spend prepare a bunch of mason jar salads so you’re covered for lunch for a few days this week.
If you’re not on Nutrisystem, pack a lunch that’s healthy and filling so you won’t be rushed and under-pack in the morning. Cut up vegetables and fruit for healthy snacks during the afternoon lull and for when you get home from work.
And if you’re going to lunch with colleagues or for a meeting, go online and look at the menu now: You can pore over it and be prepared to order a meal that will satisfy your hunger and your plan.
And track what you did today by logging your food, water, weight and activity in our free online tracker, NuMi—just writing down what they ate—helped participants in a 2008 study lose twice as much weight as those who kept no records of their eating.
Then do some non-food-related planning, too: Get tomorrow’s list of most important to-dos written down. That way, when you go to bed, you won’t lay up all night hoping you remember what you need to do in the morning—you can rest easily knowing it’s already on your list.
4. Make your room into a sleep haven.
Getting a good, restful night’s sleep is the most important thing you can do in your bedroom for your weight loss efforts. Losing as little as 30 minutes of sleep every weekday can result in weight gain and have significant effects on insulin resistance, increasing your risk for Type 2 diabetes.
First step: Make your room dark. Really dark. Research shows that exposure to even dim light during the night can mess up your internal clock, throwing off your eating schedule and potentially leading to weight gain. In one study, mice that slept while exposed to a dim light—like a computer monitor or alarm clock—gained 50 percent more weight over an eight-week period than those that slept in total darkness.
And don’t use your phone. Besides it being a dim light that can have those effects, the radiation from your phone can mean it will take longer for you to fall asleep, and you’ll spend less time in deep sleep once you do—that’s from a 2008 study conducted by the phone manufacturers themselves! And a 2014 study found that people engaging in phone use after 9 p.m. not only spent less time in deep sleep, but were more depleted in the morning and less engaged at work.
5. Meditate before bed.
Instead of scrolling through Facebook to wind down, try a mindfulness meditation to help you sleep. Studies have found that such meditations have reduced the total awake time and increased the total sleep time for insomnia patients.
To do a simple mindfulness meditation before bed, try this: Sit on the edge of your bed with your eyes closed and back straight. Breathe in and out naturally through your nose, and try to focus solely on the physical sensations of breathing: How much does your chest rise and fall? Do other parts of your body move? Think about how the air feels as it goes into and out of your nostrils. As other thoughts enter your mind, notice yourself getting distracted, acknowledge it, and return to thinking about your breathing.
If that’s not working, try counting your breaths. As you breathe in through your nose, say in your mind, “I am breathing in. One.” Then as you breathe out, say in your mind, “I am breathing out. Two.” Count up to 20, then repeat. Try to do a meditation like this for five minutes to start.