Evening is a great time to kick back and unwind from the b.s. of the day, but for many guys, that relaxation revolves around food. Maybe you'll have a nice big dinner, then spend prime time munching on chips while you ogle the female daredevils of MTV's Real World/Road Rules Challenge on your 51-inch Sony plasma screen. Or maybe you'll go out with the boys to down a couple of beers along with a Homer Simpson-sized platter of chicken wings and deep-fried mozzarella sticks.
Unfortunately, this type of nocturnal nibbling could have a more negative influence on your fat loss than anything you eat during the day. Not only are you more likely to overeat at night out of stress or boredom, but your body has less immediate need for the food you do eat, since you're not going to be running any triathlons in the hours before bedtime. It's hardly surprising that a recent study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that overweight people tend to eat a greater portion of their food later in the day than their healthy-sized counterparts.
Lucky for you, we have a simple solution: Institute an evening food curfew. If you do it right, you can lose those moonlit pounds without ever feeling hungry or deprived. In fact, a proper eating schedule will leave you more energized all day long, says Aaron Shelley, director of sports nutrition at Texas Tech University. Here's what you need to do.
1) Determine when your cutoff time will be. "It's more appropriate to set an 'hours before bed' cutoff instead of making it a certain time of the day, because different people go to sleep at different times," Shelley says. A good guideline is to stop eating two or three hours before bed. This doesn't allow you enough time to get hungry and has the added benefit of helping you sleep better, since you're less likely to get heartburn from lying down with a full stomach.
There is an exception to this rule: If you're trying to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time--and especially if you work out after dinner--Shelley recommends having some protein up to an hour and a half to two hours before bed. "A protein shake is easily assimilated, so you shouldn't have a problem with it," he says.
2) Find other ways of dealing with evening ennui. Much of nighttime eating tends to be mindless munching, so find something else to do while watching TV--or, better yet, find something else to do besides watching TV. (Or watch something like The Bachelor, guaranteed to ruin your appetite.) If you're stressed from your day at work, take a walk or run, listen to music, or complain about the boss to your wife or buddy. When you find yourself reaching for a snack, that's a sign that what you really need is something to keep you busy.
3) Eat less in the evening so you'll be hungrier for breakfast. "A well-balanced breakfast with high-quality protein and high-quality carbohydrates is extremely important," Shelley says. "A lot of guys say, 'I just can't eat breakfast in the morning,' but when you scale back on food in the evening, you'll be hungry enough to do it." If you get an upset stomach from eating in the morning, Shelley suggests starting out with something small--such as half a bagel and peanut butter--and increasing the amount gradually.
4) Eat several moderate-sized meals throughout the day. This doesn't mean stuffing yourself all day long, but rather dividing a proper supply of food into more frequent servings. "I'd be willing to bet if most people did a better job of practicing meal frequency, they wouldn't get the munchies at night," Shelley says. "Eating often throughout the day lowers the volume of the food you want to eat, keeps you from getting too hungry, and keeps your metabolic rate and energy levels up all day long. Your willpower will be amplified because you're not starving."
5) Have a healthy, but not huge, dinner. "In addition to snacking at night, guys tend to overdo the evening meal," Shelley says. "But that's usually because they've been undereating during the day." He recommends scaling back on dinner portions in general, but also cutting out starchy carbs such as bread or potatoes and replacing them with more fibrous carbs, such as salad (sans fatty dressing), broccoli or a piece of fruit.
6) If you absolutely have to eat something at night, make it light and healthful, and portion out the quantities so you're not just mindlessly chomping away until the food runs out. That means a cup of popcorn instead of the whole bag, or a couple of low-fat cheese cubes on crackers instead of the whole cow. Once you've gotten used to eating a proper breakfast and small, nutritious meals and snacks throughout the day, even these late-night cravings should no longer be necessary. Of course, you won't lose fat with an evening food curfew if you're still stuffing your face with fatty, sugary junk in the daylight hours. But if you stick to a program of healthful, moderately sized meals, this could be all your body needs to rid itself of excess flab. And with a better night's sleep as a bonus, you'll be facing every day rested, refreshed, and ready to eat again.