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Fast Food: A Nighttime Trend?

Dietitians say late-night trips to the local drive-through may have an impact on our waistlines.

Why Late-Night Eating?

"Because of the way people work these days -- many out of their homes, many with different schedules -- the traditional 9-to-5 day has morphed into a 12-noon-to-midnight day," Cebrzynski says.

That's also true for college students, dietitians say. Many attend class during the day, work an evening job, and pick up fast food when they clock out. "They're looking for something fast and inexpensive, and I'm not always sure that nutritionnutrition is on the forefront of their minds," says ADA spokeswoman Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD.

But there are other reasons for late fast-food jaunts, she adds. "People tend to consume more between the hours of 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. because that's their downtime -- their time to unwind. I think a lot of times, sitting in front of the TV equates with eating."

Night owls may also binge on fast food out of loneliness or for emotional reasons, including stress or boredom. "If you're not able to sleep or you're unhappy, food is very satisfying, calming and reassuring," Jamieson-Petonic says. "For some people, it can become a behavior to deal with things."

Is Late Eating a Problem?

Will eating late make people gain more weight? "That's more of a nutritional myth," says Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD. She is an ADA spokeswoman who's also a dietitian in private practice in Denver. Jamieson-Petonic agrees. "However you get your calories over the day is fine."

"It's total calories in the day that would lead to weight gain -- calories in vs. calories out," Farrell says.

If you reach your calorie limit and add one extra late-night run per week for a small hamburger, medium fries, and a chocolate shake, you've boosted your caloric intake by 1,080 calories a week, Jamieson-Petonic says. That translates into more than a 1-pound weight gain per month and a hefty 16 extra pounds in one year. "Those calories do add up."

Gaining Control

"There's nothing wrong with eating late if you're really hungry," Jamieson-Petonic says. If you're genuinely hungry, a bowl of cereal late at night can be satisfying, she says.

But too often, people set themselves up by skimping on breakfast and lunch and becoming ravenous in the evening, Farrell says. When they're hungry and tired at the end of the day, they're more likely to crave fattier foods -- including fast foods -- as a dinner or midnight snack, she says. "The later that a person eats, you tend to notice that the food choices aren't always the healthiest."

To fight this trap, Farrell says, "Really preplan. Have a balanced breakfast and lunch." Even eating an afternoon snack will help to curb the excessive night hunger that leads to fatty food cravings.

Working a late shift may complicate dinner planning. But preparing at least a couple of meals ahead of time on Sunday will cut down on fast food during the week. "Plan ahead and know what you're having for dinner before you walk in the door at night," Farrell says. "If you come home from work and say, 'What am I going to have for dinner?' chances are you're not going to take the time to run to the store and get some chicken or fish to grill. You just want something quick."

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