By Lisa C. Cohn, R.D.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/6/2007 6:26:30 PM ET 2007-04-06T22:26:30

Judy, a 39-year-old suburban mother of two and a veteran dieter, was convinced that fasting after 7 p.m. would help give her back the body she had in college. But clocking calories left her feeling unsatisfied by bedtime.

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Like many dieters, Judy fell for some magic rule such as "no eating after dark." But it's not so much when you eat as what and how much that really counts.

Sure, it's better to get most of your calories earlier in the day when you are most active. In general, you will lose weight easier if you finish dinner earlier because you’ll have more time to burn off the calories. Also, sleeping with a full stomach can promote weight gain because the food energy you just consumed will not be used (you burn fewer calories during sleep), so the fat will be stored.

On top of that, going to sleep with a full stomach can promote indigestion, labored breathing and extra work for the heart. You are also likely to not sleep as well and may feel physically uncomfortable.

But unless you hit the sack within 2 1/2 hours of sundown, you'll likely become hungry between dinnertime and bedtime. Most people start craving a snack about three hours after a meal.

It's OK to allow yourself a 100-150 calorie after-dinner snack — preferably something fresh or less processed, such as a dozen nuts and a small fruit, or a piece of low-fat cheese and a small bunch of grapes. Some fresh herbs with dinner, or a handful of berries or three cups of popcorn can help you sleep through the night better without ruining your diet.

Starving yourself after dusk can backfire by sending you desperately scrounging for snacks at midnight.

Late-night snacking should be avoided entirely — it's perhaps the worst culprit when it comes to weight gain. Most of nighttime snacking is simply overeating — eating not out of hunger, but more out of boredom, comfort and habit.  And this type of eating can put you at risk for bingeing.  A recent report found that binge eating — eating a pint of ice cream and cookies after a full dinner, for example — is the most common eating disorder in the U.S.

Beyond that, eating high fat or sugary foods can also lead to a night-eating hangover, which is similar to a hangover caused by alcohol, but leaves you feeling foggy-brained and moody.

Sometimes, though, you have no choice — you simply aren't able to eat dinner until late. For those of you who exercise after work and generally start dinner after 8 p.m., choose a lighter meal, such as grilled fish or seafood with olive oil and fresh herbs, or a fresh salad with fruit for dessert. 

If your workouts are cardiovascular, add some beans to your salad for extra energy. Not replenishing your energy after exercising could leave you feeling as if you're starving, and may contribute to difficulties sleeping. Also, limiting your late-day carbohydrates to selections that contain more protein — and thus, longer-lasting energy — such as wild rice, beans and whole grains, is preferred over filling up on bread and pasta, which are more processed and will leave you less satisfied and hungrier in the long run.

In the end, Judy chucked her self-imposed dieting rule, started eating dinner in the early evening and allowed herself a 100-calorie snack later. The result? Judy had an easier time losing weight.

Lisa C. Cohn is a registered dietitian with more than 20 years experience in nutrition research and training. She is president of Park Avenue Nutrition Spa, a services and consulting group in New York.

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