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Robyn Penniegraft at a refrigerator in Greensboro, N.C., Feb. 16, 2021.

Swikar Patel/The New York Times News Service

You eat well during the day, but after dinner, you always hanker for something sweet or salty to nosh on. Or, perhaps after a long day you feel that you deserve a reward to unwind.

There’s nothing wrong with eating a snack in the evening, especially if you feel hungry. But depending on what you choose – and how much you eat – those extra calories could lead to unwanted weight gain over time.

Snacking at night can also shrink your appetite for breakfast the next day. And eating a skimpy breakfast, or skipping it altogether, could actually drive after-dinner grazing.

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Habit, hormones or emotions?

Snacking at night can be a habit that has nothing to do with hunger or cravings. Instead it’s a behaviour that’s become engrained in the nightly routine.

It’s also possible that hunger hormones are propelling you to the pantry.

Lack of sleep and stress, for example, can increase levels of ghrelin, a hormone produced in the gut that increases appetite. Eating too little at breakfast has also been shown to increase ghrelin later in the day.

Or, perhaps night-time snacking is a way to soothe emotions or beat boredom. A cookie (or two) or a bowl of potato chips is something to look forward to at the end of another day in lockdown.

A boring diet that lacks variety can also prompt you to search out extra snacks and treats.

Can’t help the stress eating? Tips to maintain a healthy diet

Here are five strategies to help you break the pattern:

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1. Eat more during the day

Eating a greater proportion of daily calories at breakfast is associated with lower ghrelin levels and increased satiety during the day.

And research also suggests that eating one that’s high in carbohydrate and protein does a better job at suppressing the release of ghrelin than a low-carbohydrate breakfast.

At breakfast, include foods that deliver protein (yogurt, eggs, turkey, salmon, tofu), healthy fats (avocado, nuts, nut butters, seeds) and fibre (oats, whole grain bread, berries, apples, mango, pears, kiwifruit), nutrients that prolong satiety.

Eat a satisfying lunch that includes protein along with fibre-rich carbohydrates such as beans and lentils, quinoa, farro, freekeh or sweet potato. Including a healthy afternoon snack can also help put the brakes on your evening appetite.

2. Add variety

If you eat the same foods day after day, switch things up to add interest to your meals. Making your meals more enjoyable can prevent you from looking for treats after dinner.

3. Sip your snack

Instead of eating food, drink a low- or no-calorie beverage such as green tea, herbal tea, a decaf latte, hot cocoa, sparkling water or even hot chicken or vegetable broth. Doing so will help save calories.

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Plus, it takes longer to drink a hot beverage than it does to eat a handful of crackers, which helps you get through your craving period.

4. Be mindful

If boredom, emotions or impulse make you snack on autopilot, practise mindful eating to increase awareness and prevent mindless eating.

Before reaching automatically for a snack, take a moment to notice what you are feeling.

Are you physically hungry? Do you want something to eat because you’re upset or tired? Because you just saw a commercial for Doritos?

If your desire to eat is not about hunger, do something else that’s more appropriate for how you are feeling. Distract yourself for 15 minutes to see if your craving subsides.

If you determine that you still want to eat, you’ve made a decision to do so rather than relying on autopilot.

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5. What to snack on

Whether you decide to snack to quell hunger or satisfy a craving, choose a nutritious snack that doesn’t send your blood sugar and insulin soaring. Avoid sugary and refined starchy snacks.

A small handful of nuts or pumpkin seeds, apple slices with nut butter, Greek yogurt and berries, a green smoothie or smoked salmon on cucumber slices are examples of good choices.

Then, eat it slowly and without distractions.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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