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

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.

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.”

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.

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  • fit40s

    I needed to jump start my routine again after this weekend.  I am aiming for 1 hour of exercise every day and adding sit up and push ups in addition to a body bar.  I am also going to try some of the classes at my gym such as spinning since I think they will be a great way to make an hour pass by quickly.  :-)

  • fit40s

    I am going to look into the Warrior Dash that Beth J was talking about, it sounds like a lot of fun!  I had lunch with a friend today who was talking a lot about lean muscle mass acting as a “furnace” for burning fat.  I think that might be part of my problem.  My exercising has been consisting of walking fast on the treadmill or doing the eliptical for 1/2 hour to 45 minutes.  If I walk outside with a friend I can easily walk for over an hour since I am chatting.  I think that I need to incorporate weight training in my routine since that will help to develop the lean muscle mass.  I am pretty strong to start but maybe need to jump start the belly region. :-)  It has never quite looked the same since having kids.  I might look into a personal trainer for a few sessions to give me a weight routine.  

    • Coach Beth

      Fit40s,Thanks for checking in.  Yes—that Warrior Dash does sound fun.  I agree.  Great idea to add a weight routine.  The Federal Guidelines for exercise are to accumulate 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity in a week and to perform weight training twice a week in order to enjoy all the benefits of exercise.  Many experts recommend exercising for at least 60 minutes a day to lose weight.  However, that number can be daunting to many people.  The important thing is to get started and to find an activity or two that you truly enjoy, activities that you will keep on doing. I love your idea of walking with a friend.  It is so much easier to exercise for a longer period of time and to ramp up the intensity when you have a partner.  Meeting with a personal trainer to get a jump start on a weight routine is a good way to begin.  There are videos that you might be able to find at the library that can be beneficial as well.  So glad that you are continuing to investigate options to lead you further along your path to optimal wellness. Keep us posted! 

  • fit40s

    Well, I can’t stress enough how hard it is to lose weight after 40 years old!  Amazingly, I had no problem putting the weight on but taking it off is proving to be challenging.  :-)  I had a little bump in the  road last night.  I was volunteering at a 5K race and was starving and the only food was pizza.  I had two slices and then a small ice cream since it was an ice cream festival afterwards.  Well, I am back on the fitness road today.  I am still keeping my food journal and it is amazing how quickly the calories can add up.  I am trying to stay under 1,500 calories per day and exercising.  I have only lost two pounds in two weeks which is frustrating.  I am going to keep it up though.  I want to look at the amount of carbs I eat thinking this might be a reason why I am not losing more weight with just 1,500 calories.    My Iphone app tracks fat, carbs and protein as well as overall calories.     Maybe I need to really keep the fat and carbs low despite the low calories?  This forum has been helpful so thank you everyone.

    • Beth

      Fit40s,Thank you for posting and updating us.  Hey…congratulations on keeping a food journal!  That was a new step for you recently, and you were the one who told us all about the iphone app.  It sounds like it is really helping you.  You lost two pounds in two weeks, which is a big step in the right direction!  I understand that this seems frustrating to you.  However, as I mentioned in previous posts, slow and steady wins the race.  Most physicians recommend aiming for a pound or two a week, as a healthy amount of weight loss.  Most importantly this level of weight loss is sustainable if it is accompanied by lifestyle changes that are sustainable and reasonable for a lifetime.  Remember anyone can crash diet for a few days or weeks, but no one can maintain a crash diet for a lifetime. If you continue at this rate, you could lose 12 pounds in 3 months and 24 pounds in 6 months or half a year (by November or so).  I wonder how that sounds to you.  I am not sure what you are shooting for, but if you are in your 40s and you reach your goal in six months or a year, then you have hopefully 40 more years to enjoy your healthy lifestyle and your healthy you!I recently spoke to an inspirational woman who had lost 150 pounds in the past two years, and she is still working on losing another 50-75 pounds.  She, too, is in her 40s and is heading towards her optimal level of wellness.  She is taking the slow and steady wins the race approach, and she is really winning!  I found her story motivating and inspiring.  Monitoring your intake, being mindful of the types of foods that you eat and keeping up with the physical activity, as you are doing, is a great way to go.  From your post, I can tell that you are mindful of your intake and you are even investigating the make up of your diet with respect to carbs, protein, and fat content.  Being mindful of the carbs is a good idea, and specifically avoiding any simple carbs like white bread, pasta, cookies, cakes etc is a great way to drop “empty,” “nutrient poor” calories from your diet.  If you already do that, then focussing on using fruits and vegetables as your “nutrient dense” carbs might be a good plan.  Of course, you might have your own thoughts on this subject.  Please share any insights you might have with us. When you did have a day with a bump in the road, it sounds like you acknowledged it and decided to look at the next day as a new day.   That is a great attitude for a lifetime of wellness.  Each day is a new day, and we have the opportunity to make healthy choices each day.  Good luck with your goals this week. I am curious as to what you have been choosing for physical activity and how that has been going.  You mentioned that you had been “exercising” which is great.  I am just curious as to what type of exercise you are enjoying.  Please let us know.  

  • BethJ

    I figured something out this week that was so glaringly obvious that I realized I’ve always known it but not admitted the truth. For me, it’s not necessarily WHAT I eat, but HOW MUCH. I am a very healthy eater, but sometimes, even too many carrots, too many cheddar soy crackers (basically soaked in salt), too many mangoes, too many anything (of course there are the cracker and chip moments, too), is a downfall. The scale has gone up and down this week and it was very helpful to hear Beth’s comment about how much impacts the little changes – hydration, etc. – which is helpful. I signed up for the Warrior Dash in June, a goofy but strenuous 3 mile obstacle course. Even though it ends with kegs of beer and a big bbq, I’m going to treat the event not entirely as a joke and ‘train.’ I’ve been exercising every day but one, and plan to keep that up, but I get more and more dismayed by my ‘muffin top’ belly and what I fear is my middle-aged (YIKES!) body. I was doing well with nighttime eating but then had a big fall the other night, and again, even though I was eating healthy stuff, I ate a lot of it. I have to make an effort (again…), to keep off the crackery stuff, that’s my big challenge, and keep moving.

    • Beth

      Thank you so much for checking in. Your point about portion control is a good one. Sounds like you have the quality of your food under control, and you are even working to enhance the quality this week by keeping “off the crackery stuff.” Now you are entering the realm of quantity or portion control. The first step is acknowledgement, and you have made just taken that step. You are aware and have stated that quantity can sometimes be a “downfall” for you. Now that you realize this and have brought it to the front of your mind, it sounds like you are preparing to take some action on it. Will you monitor your portions more closely? The Mayo Clinic website has a good “lesson” on portion sizes, if you are looking for a good visual to help guide you in this area. I am curious as to what might work to help you control your quantity of food. Please let us know what you try and how it works. Perhaps others will have helpful suggestions as well. I know Fit40s is using an app for calorie counting this week which is one strategy for controlling quantity. Of course, this does not work for everyone, but it is nice to share ideas.
      Congratulations on exercising 6 days this week. That is wonderful. Do you feel different after you exercise? Does your mood change? Does your eating change for the rest of the day? I am just curious. I love the idea of the Warrior Dash–sounds “goofy” but really fun! It is great to set a goal like that to motivate you to “keep moving.”
      Congratulations also for doing well with the night time eating. I read that you “fell off one night,” which means for 6 nights you successfully avoided night time eating. I am wondering if the “fall off” was after the day when you did not exercise or if the two are unrelated. Also, what was going on that night that drew you into the kitchen? Can you recall what you were thinking or feeling at the time you started eating? The other nights when you might have had a similar urge, what kept you from acting on it? What do you think you could do differently in the future when that night time eating urge presents itself to you? Journal? Walk up and down some steps for 5-10 minutes? Bite into a lemon? Chew some gum? Drink water with lemon? Talk to a friend? These are all strategies that I know have been useful for other people. I wonder if any of these would work for you or if you have your own possible solutions.
      Please keep us posted. Thanks again for sharing your goals, realizations, and thoughts with us. I look forward to reading about how next week goes for you.

  • CC

    Great ideas this week, dehydrated strawberries, calorie counter app. . .thanks!! I am happy to say that the scale has been friendly this week and I have lost the 2 lbs. that came with Easter.
    It is amazing how motivating a little downward movement can be.

    I am still not journaling, even though that was my goal last week. I am going to take that as my goal again this week and try harder. I want the scale to continue going down and I want to learn about better habits in the process and believe that journaling will be revealing.

    Reading how others are doing is really helpful. Have a good week!

    • Beth


      Great to hear from you! Thanks for checking in again. Congratulations on your successful week!

      It sounds to me like journaling is something you really want to add to your plan this week. I agree that by journaling you will learn a great deal about your habits, emotions, needs, and more. Would it help to set a goal as selecting a journal and pen and placing them by your bedside one night, perhaps tonight? I see that as the first concrete step to this process. However, you may already have this part in place. In that case, perhaps it takes “making an appointment” with yourself before bed or when you wake up to write in that journal. Sometimes looking at your individual day and blocking off 10-15 minutes for this activity makes it turn into a reality. These are simply suggestions. I look forward to hearing about what you think you need to put in place in order for you to start journaling. Please keep us informed.

      You make a great point, “It is amazing how motivating a little downward movement can be.” The key thing is to tap into some meaningful motivation each week, each day even. Taking it day by day and setting goals for each day often works for many people. I wonder if you utilize this technique and make goals for yourself each day. Let us know what works for you. It is great to share different strategies that work, as you never know when your strategy will be just the thing that sparks someone else to get motivated.

      Good luck this week. Please keep us updated as to your progress.

  • fit40s

    I am doing really well on the fitness regime. I have been at it for 8 days and have been watching what I eat and exercising but have only lost 1 pound. UGH I discovered a fabulous new Iphone App called Calorie Counter. It allows me to track (keep a journal) of everything I eat each day and it automatically calculates total fat, carbs, protein and calories for each day. There is even a nifty bar scanner app so I can hold up most foods and it will recognize the bar code and knows serving size etc. So, I know that I am keeping my intake to under 1,500 calories/day. I would have thought I would have lost more with exercise in my regimen. Oh well, I am not going to let the “little voice” telling me to can my diet since it doesn’t seem to be working. :-) I wonder how many calories I need to eat/day to lose weight? I have been staying away from packaged foods and have stopped eating after 7:00 pm. I have cut out alcohol for the time being. I had two glasses of wine on Saturday and hated to see the calorie counter jump 400 calories since they were 8 oz glasses. I guess no one really has a 4-5 oz. pour. ha ha I am excited about embracing a lifestyle change like this but I realize now just how quickly the calories can add up when you eat the toast your kids don’t eat or the leftover nuggets they don’t eat.

    • careyg

      Dear fit40s — What do you mean, ugh????I think losing one pound is great! I’m only down a half pound, but at least it’s better than the initial half-pound I gained! I’m trying to figure that whatever I do now, I’ll do forever, so slow weight loss is OK…and thanks about Calorie Counter — will check it out!

      • Beth

        Carey G,

        This is a great attitude, “I’m trying to figure that whatever I do now, I’ll do forever, so slow weight loss is OK..” Most physicians recommend trying to lose a pound or two a week for lasting weight loss. As you know, this is a marathon, not a sprint. So, thanks for making that point so clearly this week in your response to Fit40s.

    • Beth


      Congratulations for keeping up with your program for 8 days. That in itself is something to celebrate! I sense some frustration with the “UGH,” but it seems like you talked yourself down from the dark side with, ” Oh well, I am not going to let the “little voice” telling me to can my diet since it doesn’t seem to be working. :-)” Most physicians recommend losing a pound or two a week for long term weight loss. So, you seem to be right on track, and some might say what you are doing….IS working!

      As a dear friend of mine always says, “It took me a long time to put that weight on and I knew it would take a long time to take it off…..if I wanted to do it for good.” This is a friend of mine who weighed 165 at her high school graduation and college graduation, but now in her 40s weighs 130. She successfully took the weight off with slow deliberate changes that were sustainable. She has kept the weight off for over 15 years now (with some less than 5 pound, very occasional yoyo-ing). It made so much sense to me when she talked about how the weight did not go on in one or two weeks. Thus, it is probably not going to come off in one or two weeks.

      It seems like you discovered a nice tool for counting calories. As far as calories and weight loss, there are 3,500 calories in a pound. Thus, if you exercise and burn off 500 calories for 7 days (a week), you will lose a pound a week. Of course, you can purposely eat 250 or 500 calories less than usual (by forgoing a routine snack item or a dessert) each day and lose the 3,500 calories that way as well. Indeed, a combination of eating less and exercising more often helps make that target of losing 3,500 calories a week more manageable.

      There are online trackers that you can utilize like one on the WebMD website that takes into account your current weight and height as well as a target goal that you have selected, and then it can help you set up goals for daily exercise (calories out) and food intake (calories in). The computer does all the calculations for you.

      You make another interesting point at the end of your comment which I am sure resonates with many mothers…. “…I realize now just how quickly the calories can add up when you eat the toast your kids don’t eat or the leftover nuggets they don’t eat.” Ah…eating the kids’ left overs…..skipping that each night could be a great way to cut calories. Could you wrap up the left-over nuggets and re-heat them the next day? I guess this might be unappealing to some kids (most kids), but you never know until you try. Just a thought.

      Great point about factoring in drinks–alcohol and non-alcohol–when tracking your consumption. Yup…there sure are calories in wine and beer. Water is a wonderful drink for your body, and it fills you up too.

      I like the line you wrote, “I am excited about embracing a lifestyle change like this..” You are so right, it is a lifestyle change.

      Good luck. Please let us know how this week goes for you. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas and experiences with us this week.

  • Me!

    Another week…..another challenge.
    Nightime eating is a tough one. It’s not as if I’m hungry…perhaps it is more of an emotional issue (comfort?).
    The real challenge the past week was that I have had a cold and/or allergies and really craved, i mean really craved comfort foods. The problem with comfort foods is that those are probably the least healty in my repertoire of “bad” foods.
    I think I got through it ok– it took lots of willpower.
    And of course, the desire/motivatiojn to do any activity was diminished.

    SO, hopefully this will be a better week!!!

    • Beth

      Thank you for keeping us informed about your weekly activities. It sounds like you had a tough week due to your cold/allergies. I noticed you said, “I think I got through it ok–it took lots of willpower.” So, congratulations for successfully utilizing your willpower this week. How did you do it? What worked well?
      I am hoping that the cold/allergies are less severe this week and you are able to enjoy some more physical activity.
      Please do keep us posted. Good luck!

  • sara

    This is fantastic! Thank you, Carey, for taking the shame and secrecy out of the cereal-and-reading habit — and for the good advice from Coach Beth. I love the picture of the flower.
    I started the cereal-and-reading thing as a kid — the comics (philadelphia inquirer and bucks county courier times) and trix.
    I need to update you on my own Fresh Start. But just wanted to say how inspirational this is. Now, back to cereal-and-reading…

    • Beth


      Thank you for your comment. You clearly have a sense of humor! I love it. Laughter is good medicine, as you probably know.

      We look forward to reading your update on your Fresh Start goals this week. Please keep us posted.

  • Barbara

    Mmmm, yes, nighttime carbs are the downfall of many! May I suggest Trader Joe’s dehydrated strawberries? They are crunchy but it’s basically like eating air. They have helped me over many a post-dinner rough patch. :)

    I am doing pretty well – chewing a lot of sugarless gum and chugging lots of herbal tea to make myself think that I’m eating. I’ve also been sticking to my exercise 5x a week plan. Except for last Sunday, when I had a migraine, but I couldn’t keep any food down either so it was a wash. :)

    Side note…today the elliptical trainer said I burned 350 calories, but that seemed a little inflated. How accurate are those calorie counts, anyway?

    • careyg

      Will try the strawberries!! Yeah, I wonder about those calorie counts, too — the elliptical I’ve been using seems oddly low, actually — barely 200 calories in 30 minutes of legs and arms going at least 70 rpm???

    • Beth


      Thank you so much for checking in with us. It is wonderful to hear about your progress. Congratulations on sticking with your exercise plan this week. You have several interesting suggestions on your post. Chewing sugarless gum, drinking herbal tea, eating dehydrated strawberries….from reading the other comments it sounds like this post has proven valuable to CC, and I bet others who are following the blog.

      As far as accuracy of the elliptical trainer’s calorie counts, I am not sure of its “standard deviation,” but I am sure that it is not perfectly accurate. I look at those numbers as ball park figures. The manufacturers might give a standard deviation or guidelines to interpretation of the calorie counts.

      Keep up the great work with the regular exercising. The benefits are plentiful in terms of mood, body composition, fitness level, energy level, sleep and so much more. I wonder if you are enjoying and noticing any specific benefits from your exercise efforts.

      Please keep us posted and continue to share your good ideas with the group. We can all benefit from each other!