Are you a night nibbler? Do your hunger demons come out in the evenings? We’ve all been there. Standing in the warm glow of the fridge, perusing its contents for leftover apple pie when we know we should be asleep.
That’s fine and dandy if you’re reaching for a banana or an ounce of walnuts, but a completely different story if you have a habit of busting open a 10pm bag of chips. The issue is not so much the time, as the quality of food. Unprocessed foods nourish and promote stability in terms of mood, sleep cycle, energy, and appetite while processed foods do the opposite.
Eating at night is a bad habit to get into because it doesn’t leave enough time before going to bed to digest your food well. Nighttime eating can lead to snacking excessively on junk food and it can also be at the root of poor sleep.
Night Eating Syndrome
If you answer “yes” to all or most of the following questions, you should consider your routine more seriously.
- Do you overeat in the evening, especially after dinner?
- Then, do you eat at night even though you’re not hungry?
- Do you wake up during the night and eat, usually after a trip to the bathroom?
- And do you have no appetite in the morning?
- Do you often have feelings of sadness, stress, anxiety, or depression, and do these feelings tend to increase at night?
Does this sound like your routine?
Your issue might not be that you lack the self-control or willpower to stay away from the foods that you love (or, at the very least, have grown accustomed to). You might actually be dealing with something more specific (and treatable): night eating syndrome.
Also known as ‘midnight hunger,’ night eating syndrome is primarily characterized as an ongoing, persistent pattern of late-night overeating or binge eating.
Scientists often distinguish between nighttime eating syndrome and binge eating. While both may be triggered by similar issues, night eaters tend to nosh, eating no more than 400 calories at a time. Binge eaters may consume an unusually large amount of food, between 2,000 and 3,000 calories, in one sitting, and usually quit after that.
The Effect of Snacking at Night
To understand the full impact of those late night snacks, you need to know what’s happening in your body.
When you eat, the food you consume is converted into energy thanks to your metabolism. During this complex chemical process, calories are combined with oxygen to release the energy your body needs to function. Food goes in, chemical processes happen, energy is created.
Our metabolism is in full swing when we’re most active, which is generally during the day. And, just like our minds, our metabolism needs a rest from time to time. This rest period usually occurs when we’re less active, i.e. when we’re winding down before bed.
So, if we eat too close to bedtime (cue those late night snacks), our bodies don’t have the correct energy needed to digest the food. Generally, eating at this time means you’re more likely to store calories as fat rather than burn them as energy. That’s bad news if you’ve got a sweet tooth as your body won’t be able to work as hard to break the sugar down; likewise, with salty snacks and carbs.
How to Stop Overeating at Night
A tendency to snack on unhealthy foods well into the evening can stem from a variety of reasons. To curb your nighttime binges, follow these tips.
Identify the cause
Some people eat most of their food late in the evening or during the night. To change this habit, you need to identify the cause of the problem.
Nighttime eating may be the result of overly restricted daytime food intake, leading to ravenous hunger at night. It may also be caused by habit or boredom. People tend to use food to curb emotions such as sadness, anger or frustration, and they often eat even when they are not hungry.
Eat regular meals
One of the best ways to prevent late night eating is to avoid skipping meals. Meal skipping can put you at risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) as well as increase the urge to overeat later on. Aim to eat three balanced meals and an afternoon snack daily. This will help you to feel less hungry at night. Once you are eating less at night, you likely will feel more hungry throughout the day.
It is often hard to eat breakfast when your last meal or snack took place hours before rising. By reducing intake at night, you can wake up feeling hungry and ready to eat breakfast.
Breakfast is perhaps the most important step for combating nighttime food cravings. A healthy breakfast sets the tone for the rest of the day and can keep you full at night.
Shifting your caloric intake towards the morning can help you feel full later in the day. If the bulk of your daily calories are consumed during breakfast and lunch, then you’ll have less room during and after dinner to overindulge.
If in doubt, wait it out
When you feel a craving, wait 20 minutes. Chances are, the temptation will fade in that time because your body doesn’t actually need what you’re craving.
Prepare healthy nighttime snacks
If overeating at night is a habit, you’re not likely to give it up overnight. You can help ease the transition by switching from unhealthy nightly snacks to healthier options.
Cut up fruits and vegetables and keep them in Tupperware containers in your fridge. That way, they’ll be easy to grab when the desire to eat after dinner surfaces.
You can buy pre-sliced fruit and veggies from the supermarket. This might be a good option if you tend to be disorganized and may not remember to prepare nighttime snacks yourself.
Set yourself up for sleep
Staying up late, during the hours you should be sleeping, increases the odds of overeating at night. And numerous studies over the past few years have connected a lack of adequate sleep to weight gain.
Set a cutoff time
You might eat your dinner around 6 p.m., so you make sure that you are done by 7 p.m. cutoff. Instead of a more vague, ‘no snacking before bed,’ a hard rule of ‘no food after 7 p.m.’ may be actually easier to follow because it is so rigid.
Your cutoff time may be earlier or later depending on your schedule, but it’s still helpful to have one in mind.
How do you feel at night? Anxious? Bored? Restless? It’s widely known that negative emotions can make us want to eat – even when we’re not hungry – as a form of fleeting distraction. The best way to kick this is to recognize your emotional triggers and respond to them effectively. When do you start craving something, and what are you feeling at the time? Is there a better way you could react?
Instead of grabbing the closest thing to eat, you could run yourself a bath, read a book or call a friend. Or, try popping into the gym for a little gentle exercise and get those endorphins flowing. Experiment with different activities to see what works and have some fun with it – with activities other than eating to keep you entertained, it’ll be easier than ever to avoid unnecessary snacking.
Find an engaging, mindful activity that doesn’t involve food. Finish cleaning up after dinner, then get out of the kitchen. If you’ve got a family, play a board game. Or if you are solo, read a book. Partake in a hobby you find relaxing.
The thing you probably shouldn’t do is plant yourself in front of the TV. Television has been shown to stimulate overeating.
Look at what’s around you
A source of overeating which is often missed is cuing. If there are addictive processed foods out on display in your workplace or home, they can trigger cravings just by being available and those cravings can build up through the day and erupt as bingeing in the evening.
Remove your trigger foods
Out of sight, out of mind, right? If there are certain foods you gravitate toward in the evening, don’t buy them. Try to limit your intake of what you already have in the house and then once you’ve finished it be sure to avoid purchasing again. If it’s not there, you can’t eat it.
Restock your kitchen with healthy foods. If you need to have a small snack, you want have nutritious and satisfying options to choose from.
Anxiety and stress are two of the most common reasons why people eat when they aren’t hungry. However, using food to curb your emotions is a bad idea.
If you notice that you eat when you are anxious or stressed, try to find another way to let go of negative emotions and relax.
Relaxation techniques you may find useful include breathing exercises, meditation, hot baths, yoga, gentle exercise or stretching.
Add more fun into your life
This is awesome advice, right? Being told to cultivate more joy in your daily routine is a serious win.
Here’s the thing: Eating at night can turn into a favorite way to relax and wind down; knowing that you have that pint of ice cream waiting for you in the freezer can get you through a really hard day. It can even turn into your day’s highlight – or even your primary source of joy, entertainment, and fun. This is when it could become a problem.
Ask yourself: What are you missing in your life?
Are you craving joy? Self-nurturing? Comfort? It might not be the Cherry Garcia after all. So add in what you really need more of – and then you may find that you’re less likely to fulfill that need with food.
Brush your teeth
It’s surprisingly simple; brushing your teeth is a quick way to tell your body and mind that you’re done for the night and ready for bed. The minty flavor will negatively impact the flavor of the food you’re tempted to consume. Plus, who wants to brush their teeth twice in one night?
Listen to your body
While you’re looking for emotional eating patterns, try to spot the physical effects as well. Does eating too close to your bedtime give you acid reflux? Did finishing off that box of cookies leave you full and feeling guilty the next morning so you skipped breakfast?
The next time you have a late-night hankering, remind yourself of those crummy side effects.
Nighttime eating has been linked to excess calorie intake, obesity and poor health. If eating at night is a problem for you, then try the steps above to help you stop.
Do remember that change takes time and awareness. You already have the awareness, so you’re well on the road to solving this very common challenge.