Nighttime eating is a major concern for many people who have a conflicted and difficult relationship with food. Nighttime eating typically indicates one of the following imbalances:
1. Nighttime eating may indicate that you are a chronic dieter. If you significantly restrict calories your body will crave nutrients and calories at the end of the day.
2. Nighttime eating may indicate that your blood sugar is out of balance. This will cause cravings at the end of the day.
3. Nighttime food cravings can indicate that you are an emotional eater. Unstructured time in the evening can trigger emotions and stress that cause uncontrollable emotional food cravings.
4. Nighttime eating may indicate that you are stuck in a deeply engrained habit pattern of eating at night that can be effectively changed with desire and effort.
If you struggle with nighttime food cravings and nighttime eating, it is most likely a combination of more than one of the above possible reasons.
Let’s begin by addressing nighttime eating problem number one. Restricting calories during the day and the chronic dieting mentality can cause intense food cravings. Here’s the thing, dieting is not a sustainable form of weight loss—in fact—studies show that chronic dieting causes weight gain! The weight loss industry has based their marketing on the premise that they can make you feel as though you do not know how or what to eat. The dieting industry makes you feel as though you are out of control and in need of someone or something else to be in charge of your food intake. While this may work temporarily (for weight loss, NOT necessarily for health), what happens when the diet is over? (Hint: usually a dangerous cycle of binge eating or overeating after an extended time of feeling deprived.)
If you have been significantly restricting your caloric intake, please know that it is simply not realistic long-term. If you find that you are hungry and unable to resist eating at night when you have restricted your food intake during the day, you are most likely having these strong cravings because you are indeed hungry! You also may be having these strong cravings because your body is trying to communicate to you that you are even malnourished. Your body is most likely craving energy and nourishment and your “self-control” reserves have been depleted and you find yourself eating and most likely in an out of control manner.
The most effective way to remedy this is to STOP DIETING! Start eating real, nutritious whole foods and begin to focus on healing your relationship with food through mindful and intuitive eating practices. Stop restricting and begin focusing on why you want a certain food and if that food serves your health and wellness goals. You can begin to add more nutrition to each meal during the day and notice if that helps reduce your cravings in the evening. Chronic dieting can contribute to blood sugar imbalances as well, which leads us to nighttime eating cause number two!
If your blood sugar is out of balance, it can cause strong food cravings at the end of the day. One cause for this imbalance can be when you start the day with a high amount of carbohydrates and sugars. This will spike your blood sugar early in the day and cause residual cravings all day long. The primary remedy for this is to add protein to your breakfast to help stabilize blood sugar throughout the day. Another way to manage blood sugar imbalance is to minimize taking in excess sugar, processed foods and certain carbohydrates (without being entirely or overly restrictive.) Balancing protein and fiber will help as well—vegetables that are loaded with fiber like leafy greens eaten with a healthy protein source can be very stabilizing and satiating.
Possible cause number three is emotional eating, which is often a major contributor to nighttime eating. Unstructured time in the evening can trigger many feelings. Some of the most common feelings that trigger nighttime eating are: stress, anxiety, boredom and loneliness. The most effective way to begin to manage emotional eating is to have a healthy, non-food-based outlet for your emotions. If you would like more guidance and support surrounding emotional food cravings you can check out my blog on the 5 stages of awareness here to guide you through becoming more emotionally aware. I also have several blogs dedicated to understanding and releasing emotional cravings and emotional awareness and food cravings, you can check out one here.
Emotional eating is complex and may be an area where you could benefit from support by working with a therapist. However, giving yourself an outlet will help to identify the feeling and then make a choice on how to respond to the feeling. Once you can recognize, name and understand the trigger for the emotion you are experiencing, you can create a new outlet for your emotions. Learning to be present with them rather than eating them away and numbing them out with food is essential. This part of the process is definitely not easy. Give yourself time to process your feelings through journaling, talking about them, and/or doing something creative to release them in order to have a place for them to be acknowledged, respected, understood and released.
Now onto scenario number four, nighttime eating as a long-standing habit. If you have had the habit of having a bowl of popcorn and a glass of wine while unwinding in the evening or having dessert every night regardless of whether or not you are hungry, this can indeed be a difficult habit to break. Creating a new habit takes time, effort, discipline and consistency to make happen.
You can begin by identifying the habit you want to change and determine your WHY. Why do you want to change this habit? Make it something that is truly important to you and involves your personal values. It is helpful to remind yourself of your personal WHY continually to remain motivated to maintain this change. Determine what you’d like to do instead of your typical nighttime eating habit. Preplanning an alternative to eating in order to take away the challenge of having to force yourself in the moment will help you to change this habit. Maybe you’d like to have a cup of tea, journal, read, knit—whatever it is—set yourself up for success by having this new evening habit ready to access.
Commit to one month of changing this habit. At the end of the month, take time to reflect on how it goes. What has changed? How did this change impact you? How did it impact your health? How did it impact your self-esteem and your self-image? This is important stuff to notice! Not to sound like a broken record, but I will anyway—if you are truly hungry, allow yourself to eat—just ensure you are not mindlessly eating out of habit, boredom or otherwise.
Nighttime eating is pervasive and many of us struggle with this challenge and yet most people don’t share this struggle with others. Many people feel ashamed and maybe attempt to hide it. Awareness is the first step. If you feel you could benefit from support, reach out! The upcoming Finding Freedom From Emotional Eating Online Group Coaching Course will help support you through challenges such as nighttime eating and emotional eating! You can learn more about this course here.
I hope these methods help to bring more awareness to the why behind any nighttime eating and that these steps will help you begin or continue your journey to make peace with food as well as with yourself.