Night Eating, 100 Calorie Snacks, and Mac and Cheese

Q: Does food eaten at night turn to fat more easily?
Q: Are eating those 100-calorie packages of cookies and crackers a good strategy to control snacking?
Q: Does macaroni and cheese count as a serving of dairy?


Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research

Q: Does food eaten at night turn to fat more easily?
A: If eating in the evening causes weight gain, then it’s hard to explain the low incidence of obesity in European countries where dinner is rarely eaten before eight or nine o’clock. Even though you may be less active at night, you are still burning calories. Your lungs, heart, brain and other vital organs still require energy – even while you sleep. Weight control is not dependent on the time of day you consume your calories, but rather on how the total number of calories you eat throughout the day compares to the total number you burn. Studies have shown that as long as there is a balance between calories taken in and expended, people who eat later in the evening do not gain weight. The trouble comes when evening eating is not related to hunger, but is used to relieve boredom or stress. Late night munching in front of the television, for example, can easily offset your daily energy balance and lead to weight gain. In addition, many people choose high-calorie “junk foods” in the evening rather than making more sensible, nutritious choices like fruit. But these situations pose trouble at any time of day. The problem is inappropriate eating behavior, not the time at which it occurs.

Q: Are eating those 100-calorie packages of cookies and crackers a good strategy to control snacking?
A: Those mini-packages offer several advantages: Portions are controlled, the food is often presented in smaller pieces so you feel like you’re getting more and the packages are convenient and portable. They are a nice alternative for people who may otherwise turn to a vending machine for a much higher calorie snack fix. The problem: high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and fat, these snack packs are unlikely to satisfy your hunger and provide fuel for any substantial length of time. For more sustained energy and hunger control, look for a snack that provides protein, fiber or both. More nutritious, less processed options that provide roughly the same number of calories as a snack pack include: a large apple, a medium banana or pear, a cup of applesauce or juice-packed canned fruit, 12 dried apricots, a quarter-cup of raisins, a piece of string cheese or a 100-calorie container of yogurt. For those individuals who require a bit more energy to sustain them, a snack with 200 calories may fit their needs better. In this case, a quarter cup of nuts is a choice that provides both protein and satisfying fiber.

Q: Does macaroni and cheese count as a serving of dairy?
A: One serving of dairy provides the equivalent of 30 percent of the Daily Value (DV) for calcium, a little over 300 milligrams. Eating a serving of milk, yogurt, cheese or calcium-fortified juice provides roughly this amount. Whether or not a serving of macaroni and cheese would supply an equivalent amount of calcium depends on the size of the portion you eat. For example, one cup of macaroni and cheese prepared from a packaged mix provides just one-third of a serving of dairy. While you could get the calcium equal to a cup of milk if you ate a whole standard-size box of mac and cheese, you would also take in anywhere from 870 to 1140 calories and 18 to 45 grams of fat. Not a healthful trade-off by any stretch of the imagination. And, while one cup of homemade macaroni and cheese can have the equivalent of one to two servings of dairy, the calorie and fat content will also be alarmingly high unless you prepare it using reduced-fat cheese and replace the butter with a reduced-fat spread.

Reprinted with permission from the American Institute for Cancer Research www.aicr.org

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