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You don't have to quit your nighttime snack habit — under a few conditions

Ally Hirschlag is a producer/actor/writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY and buys way too many toys for her cats. She contributes to several publications, including Bustle, and The Nerve, and enjoys writing about all things woman. In her spar...

Why you shouldn't feel so guilty about late-night eating

If you've ever sneaked into the kitchen after hours and snacked on some tasty leftovers, raise your hand. That's what I thought. Most of us have been guilty of late-night eating at one time or another, and while it tastes so good, we usually feel pretty bad about it afterward.

Much like those one-night stands we all had in our 20s, we've been told these evening binge sessions will make us feel way worse in the morning. The reason is that science has irrefutably said that eating after hours is a surefire way to pack on the pounds.

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The theory is that humans can't metabolize as efficiently when they eat later in the day, but despite recent studies that seem to prove that, the reason for this is still somewhat in the dark. Scientists believe it has something to do with a combination of our circadian rhythms and an inherent habit our prehistoric ancestors passed down to us. The likelihood is that they learned to eat later because they found it helped them keep food in their bodies longer — something they desperately needed when sustenance was scarce. However, this has unfortunately resulted in humans being hungrier in the evening than at any other time of day. That's why we tend to eat our largest meals at dinnertime rather than at lunch or breakfast. So not only is the habit ingrained in our DNA, but it's reinforced by our sociology. Thanks for that, ancestors!

There is one study that suggests the contrary is true — that late-night eating has absolutely no effect on the waistline. However, that study, which was published back in 2005, was conducted on primates, not humans. Pretty much every human study declares that if you want to lose weight, you should not go calorie crazy in the evening hours.

So what's a nighttime snacker to do? The easy answer is to stop eating after 6 p.m., but that's not helpful for most of us who live in the real world, right? If that's not an option for you, science says the second best thing is to pack your after hours meals with protein. Protein-enriched foods help muscles grow and keep your metabolism going, even when your body is resting. One smaller study gave half of 44 male volunteers protein shakes 30 minutes before bed for three months while having them follow a specific workout program. They found that the men who drank the shakes gained more muscle mass than those who didn't. So that definitely a few points for the protein before bed argument. Better to gain muscle mass than unwanted fat, right?

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Nutritional Biochemist and Author Shawn M. Talbott is all for before bed snacks, as long as they're "smart snacks". He said, "Those 'before bed' snacks keep blood sugar balanced through the night, stimulate protein synthesis and muscle mass maintenance, all of which means helps you lose the fat, keep the lean, control hunger, improve mood, etc." His go-to before bed snacks are apples, cheese, yogurt, and granola.

Meanwhile, certified fitness and nutrition coach Pat Barone, says if you must snack before bed, stick to proteins, specifically turkey or tuna, because they help you sleep. However, she explains, if you're a late-night snacker, that's probably because you don't eat a big enough lunch, or you eat too many carbs rather than protein at lunch.

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It seems to all come down to reprogramming your diet so you're doing the more calorie-heavy eating earlier in the day. This will help keep you more satiated in the evening, so you're not snacking so much, which can work against a healthy sleep pattern. Once you correct the cycle with these little adjustments, you should find yourself in front of that bright refrigerator light a whole lot less.

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