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The night kitchen

01/31/06 12:00AM By Rachel Johnson
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(HOST)Is food eaten after dark really more fattening than what we eat during the day? Commentator Rachel Johnson talks about the call of the night-time kitchen.

(JOHNSON) Let's admit it - we all have little food moments the whole world doesn't need to know about. Invariably mine occur at night. Once dinner is cleaned up and I've worked my way through the dreaded bag of unfinished office work I hauled home, I begin to hear the call of the night kitchen. The other night, after answering the call, I was lying on the sofa watching a Seinfeld rerun and spooning my way through a bowl of my favorite chocolate-mint frozen yogurt. I realized I was doing exactly what all the diet gurus warn against. But what's wrong with nighttime eating? Is food consumed after dark really more fattening than what we eat during the day?

One theory is that our metabolism slows at night, making the calories we eat after the dinner hour more likely to be stored as fat. The data are sparse on the subject. One small study published more than a decade ago examined nine young men and found that the energy cost of digesting a snack at night was eleven percent compared to sixteen percent for the same snack eaten in the morning: a difference of a whopping ten calories for my 200-calorie portion of frozen yogurt - not exactly overwhelming. Most nutrition scientists agree that the effect is so small that it's of little significance in the overall control of body weight. So, if a calorie is more or less still a calorie regardless of when it's eaten, is nighttime eating a problem?

Eating at night does seem to contribute to weight gain among people who are already overweight. In an investigation of more than 2,000 Danish people, night eating was defined as having little or no food at breakfast (called "morning anorexia") along with consuming at least half the daily calorie intake after the evening meal. This seems like a bizarre pattern, but I was surprised to learn that nine percent of the women and seven percent of the men reported being night eaters. Over six years, the overweight women who were night eaters gained almost ten pounds more than those who were not. Few facts exist as to why this happens - perhaps, by the light of the refrigerator in a deserted kitchen, we are more prone to letting our guard down.

So far nighttime noshing hasn't been a weight issue for me. In general I read labels, choose smart snacks like fruit or low-fat frozen yogurt, and I'm a long way from eating most of my calories after eight PM. But, on those nights that the yogurt just doesn't do it, I am more vulnerable. If you suspect that your nighttime eating pattern may be a problem, consider your snack choices carefully, and if you don't already do so, eat a hearty breakfast. I could certainly benefit from eating less at night, which would probably help me wake up hungrier. But I wonder if my Seinfeld reruns would be as fun without the frozen yogurt.

I'm Rachel Johnson of Colchester.

Nutritionist Rachel Johnson is Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UVM and an advisor to EatingWell magazine.
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