Standing in front of the fridge with the morning’s declaration to NOT overeat again tonight rattles through Susan’s mind before it fades into the background as something more visceral and akin to auto-pilot takes over. It’s 9:00 pm and the dinner meal has been eaten to the point that the stomach feels over-full. But that doesn’t matter. She’s had a tough day, her family is in bed, and this is the time of day that is hers alone. The idea of eating is met with a mix of dread and guilty anticipation. Physical hunger is long gone, but the urge to eat is strong. Really strong.
For those who resonate with this scenario you know that during these private nighttime moments there is no logical thought as much as a strong and unwavering urge to do what is known, and on some level, comforting. This magnetic pull to do what we know logically is not in our best interest is more about trying to feed a deeper need on a physiological and/or emotional level that isn’t being met, then about willpower. Thus, the strategy of ‘just don’t overeat at night’ is like telling a depressed person to ‘just be happy’. The solution is not that simple.
With that in mind, here are four tips that can help to begin the process of breaking the cycle of nighttime overeating:
1. Eat regular and nutrient-balanced meals and snacks.
The most common trap people get caught in is skipping meals, or not eating a balance of nutrients during the day. If we don’t get enough fuel or a balance of foods, this pattern can set up a physiological response to overeating at night. The key is to make sure your meals are regular (at least 3 meals and up to 2 snacks/day) balanced (a combo of protein, fats, carbs for each meal and snack) and moderately portioned. Another common trap is if someone is intentionally avoiding or significantly limiting carbohydrates. This physiological craving may show up at night to make up for the crucial macronutrient the body was deprived of during the day. Nighttime eating is often due in part to being nutritionally malnourished, which is why evaluating overall nutrition and eating patterns is the first step.
It can feel trance-like when the boredom (or loneliness, anger frustration, or sadness…) of the moment hits and the urge to eat when not physically hungry starts to build. In these moments it’s important to interrupt the auto-pilot and to bring awareness to what you are experiencing at the moment. What are you thinking, feeling, and really needing? I like to use the acronym HALTBS.
H – Am I physically hungry?
If YES: Choose a balanced, portioned snack and eat mindfully.
If NO: Check in with what’s up…are you:
A – Angry
L – Lonely
T – Tired
B – Bored
S – Stressed?
Since we can only honor what we are conscious of, it’s important to enhance emotional awareness so that we can determine what we are really hungry for in those quiet moments.
This step takes time and practice. Don’t expect the urge to eat to completely disappear, but it will begin to dissipate in intensity with the incorporation of healthier alternatives to do besides eating. For example, maybe anger is the feeling that is surfacing, so try journaling or going on a brisk walk, or venting with a friend to help channel rather than ‘swallow’ what’s festering within. Maybe the feeling is loneliness and you crave connection with another. I hear this a lot and at night when all alone, it might be too late to call a friend, so it becomes important to distract with another activity that can occupy your mind and hands while sitting with that loneliness. For example, crocheting while watching TV, or doing a jigsaw puzzle, coloring, drawing, playing the piano, painting your nails, doing arts and crafts, or solving a Sudoku puzzle. The key is to check in with what non-food alternative you can try FIRST. With practice, some nights you’ll be able to ride the wave of the urge to eat and allow it to dissipate and other nights, you may need to give yourself permission to give into the urge. Which brings me to the last tip for managing nighttime eating.
Since willpower has little to do with managing nighttime eating, it’s important to not have a surplus of your trigger foods at your fingertips. Our environment plays a significant role in our choices. For example, if you know that ice cream is your ‘go to’ food to mindlessly eat when not hungry, then choose how much you want to have in your freezer – if any at all. Some people feel panicky if there is NOTHING available, but instead of a gallon of ice cream, there are only two mini serving sizes. Others know that if it’s in the house, it’s going in the belly, so they make themselves go out and get a small serving size if riding the wave with choosing non-food alternatives FIRST still leaves them wanting to eat anyway. Sometimes the extra step of having to go out and get the food is enough of a deterrent until the urge dissipates.
Since we are all unique and the reasons for nighttime eating is personal, there is no ONE way that will be the magic strategy for letting go of what may have become a tried and true way of self-comfort. However, these tips may help to begin thinking about and experimenting with different choices in the moment. The key is to cultivate awareness and to slowly but surely shift off of auto-pilot, and step into making a more conscious choice when the urge to mindlessly eat at night strikes.