Ask Stew: How Late-Night Snacks Can Torpedo Your Military Fitness Goals

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Fruit and vegetable market.
Fruit and vegetable market. (Photo courtesy of the United States Agency for International Development historical archive)

Here is a very common performance issue many of us have with regard to running better and doing more pull-ups -- that extra 15-20 pounds. It is no secret that being a few pounds lighter will make it easier to do pull-ups and will help you not to hurt as much while running. 

Here is an email from a veteran just trying to stay in the fight:

Stew, I'm stuck. ... I'm at 207, and I'm feeling the extra pounds. I'd really be better off at 190-195. I do OK with eating during the day as far as portion control.

Here is a sample food day:

Banana first thing when waking up. Workout.

Bowl of cereal or oatmeal after workout.

1 sandwich with lean meat for lunch (though I do have some chips -- OK, two big handfuls of chips)

But I go off the rails at night. I can't say no to cookies and eat like I'm starving.

I know the extra pounds are killing my pull-up totals and run times (not to mention joints).

Any suggestions for:

  • Better managing portion control
  • Snacks that won't kill me when I have the munchies

Signed "Fat and Almost 50"

Dear Fat and Almost 50,

I understand. Every year, I start to run again and do more calisthenics in the spring (Periodization = the key to longevity) after lifting heavy and not running in the winter. I have to drop 15-20 pounds quickly, or my running progressions are slower and more painful. When I first start to run, I feel like I am rucking. Running at 220 when you are used to running at 200 or less makes you feel like you ate your rucksack. 

But it really is just added bulk (muscle and fat) weighing you down, so you have to do a combination of higher repetition, lighter weight or just calisthenics training, followed by moderate to easy cardio to burn calories to lose weight.

Since I know you personally, I can say it is not your workouts that are the issue. You nailed it. Late-night snacking crushes any weight-loss hopes for all of us. I fall victim as well, but have found the following things to help with evening snacking, portion control and better choices for when you need a snack:

The Nine Line to Reduce Late-Night Snacking

Portion Control

I am not making an elaborate diet for you. It is simpler than that. Just don't eat as much. When preparing your evening meal, make sure you use smaller plates. I am not sure what happened in the last 20-30 years, but dinner plates have gotten as big as a bike tire. Use the salad plate for your meal. First start off with a salad, then top it off with some form of lean meat or protein. (some ideas)

Just Add Water 

When you think you are hungry, drink water first or some non-sugar drink. I like unsweetened ice tea but will drink more water throughout the day to curb hunger. It may cause you to get up at night to use the restroom if you drink too late into the evening, but it is better than chowing on 300-400 calories of cookies before bed.

Brush Your Teeth

There are not many foods or drinks that taste good after brushing your teeth. When you start to get that craving, brush your teeth an hour or two after dinner. I even keep a toothbrush and toothpaste in the kitchen to pull me away from the fridge.

Clean Your Kitchen

After dinner, do not leave any leftovers sitting out. That is an easy way to pile on without a plate controlling your portions.

Cookies line tables at the officer’s club ballroom during the annual Cookie Caper event at Misawa Air Base, Japan.
Cookies line tables at the officer’s club ballroom during the annual Cookie Caper event at Misawa Air Base, Japan, Dec. 7, 2016. (Senior Airman Deana Heitzman/U.S. Air Force photo)

Don't Buy Cookies

This is an easy one. If you do not want to eat cookies (and other junk food), do not buy them. It is hard when there are children around, but if you must have the cookies in the house, hide them from easy access.

Locally grown almonds are displayed during a press conference in Tarinkot, Afghanistan.
Locally grown almonds are displayed during a press conference in Tarinkot, Afghanistan, on Feb. 7, 2013. (Sgt. Jessi Ann McCormick/U.S. Army photo)

Smart Snacks

Having a protein source (limited portions) still is adding calories to your day, but your body can use it for the morning workout later and it is more filling and will tend to help you avoid other foods afterward. I find a protein snack or nuts, almonds or a small piece of meat (not processed) works well for controlling any binge eating. 

I like boiled eggs, tuna fish or peanut butter. Often, I will put in some hot sauce to spice up the egg/tuna fish combo. If you are into supplements, a small protein drink is not a bad idea, but you do not want to push too many calories. The trick is to avoid the sugars at night, as they can trigger the urge for salty foods and you will grab another handful (or two) of chips again.

Midday Snack

Around 3 p.m., grab a fruit or vegetable to help with drops in blood sugar, which are typical. Drink more water or tea if you are feeling tired. I like a banana and a few apple slices midday, mixed with peanut butter.

Start Chewing Gum

I find that a cinnamon-, spearmint- or peppermint-flavored gum also makes food taste weird after chewing. If the toothpaste did not help and after drinking a few glasses of water, try flavored gum. The act of chewing might help you think you do not need to eat that food you are hiding from yourself. You can find sugar-free gum as well as sugar gum that makes the breath minty fresh.

Do the Math

Some people like to count calories and treat them like a budget. If you are trying to keep muscle and lose fat, you still have to lift weights and do calisthenics, but add more cardio and focus on keeping total calories eaten lower than normal. A good equation to help you do that is to take your body weight and multiply it by 10. That is your total calories for the day. That does not work for all body weights, but it can be a great place to start for losing the final 10-15 pounds.

Add in workouts, and you will have a caloric deficiency, which will mean weight loss for you while keeping muscle to do pull-ups and energy levels high enough to run.

Here is a list of articles with workouts for better pull-ups and running progressions:

Pyramid Workout (Monday): This is the classic method to building pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups and any other exercise you like or need to master. Plus mix with running as a "recovery" every five sets.

Superset Workout (Wednesday): This is a sub-max-effort foundation workout to increase the volume of your PT exercises. Add in a quarter-mile sprint for speed work each set.

Max-Rep Set Workout (Friday or Saturday): If you cannot do pull-ups, you will have to resort to many of the pulling exercises to reach these kinds of numbers. After every cycle, add in a short run for recovery.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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