23 Strategies to Control Nighttime Eating
“I’m so good during day … but at night I can’t stay out of the kitchen”. Sound familiar? I frequently hear this from my clients. It happens to me as well. So why is it that we are able to watch what we eat during the day but night time brings out the food demons? The exact causes are unknown and likely differ for each individual. When we have control in other areas in our lives, it can feel frustrating not to have control in this area. But there are some tips and tricks that can help you reign in the evening munchies.
Possible causes of nighttime eating
The causes likely differ from person to person. Stress, anxiety, boredom, sleep deprivation,
inadequate calories or protein during the day, habit, and likely chemical imbalances can all contribute to night time eating. Keep in mind that there is a difference between night time snacking and binge eating. And there is even a syndrome called Night Eating Syndrome (see below).
What kind of night eater are you?
Before moving on to my tips, it’s important to distinguish what kind of night eater you are because the treatment will vary widely.
Snackers: Most of us just get “snacky” at night. Many of my tips below can help you
Binge Eating Disorder. People with binge eating disorders often eat an unusually large amount of food and feel out of control during the binges. About 2% of all adults in the U.S. may have binge eating disorder. Treatment involves working with a therapist and registered dietitian who specializes in eating disorders.
Night Eating Syndrome. NES is characterized by a lack of appetite in the morning, overeating at night, and waking to eat throughout the night. Seen as a delay in the circadian rhythm of food intake while retaining a normal sleep-wake cycle, it is defined by two core criteria: the ingestion of at least 25% of daily calories after dinner and/or awakening to eat at least three times per week. Source: Today’s Dietitian: Night Eating Syndrome
Sleep-Related Eating Disorder (SRED). People with SRED eat while sleepwalking, or while in a twilight state between sleep and being awake. People with SRED are not aware of what they’re doing, and often they may wake up to discover dishes or food in their bed, and have no memory of eating at all. Source: Forbes: Night Eating Syndrome: a Warning Sign pic credit
Strategies to control night-time eating
I will admit that there are no easy answers to stop night eating in its tracks. But there are some strategies that may help. My patients have found some of these strategies helpful. We’ll start with the simple ones first.
- Don’t take your calories too low during the day. Eating too few calories during the day can backfire and lead to more hunger … and the urge to snack … later on in the evening.
- Eat adequate protein at meals. This includes dinner, lunch and even breakfast. Studies have shown that eating protein at breakfast can help control cravings and overall food intake later on in the day. Good sources of protein include: Greek yogurt, eggs, cheese, fish, soy, cottage cheese, meat, poultry, fish, beans, nuts and seeds.
- Don’t be a fat phob. Fat provides satiety and keeps you feeling full longer. Healthy fats include nuts and nut butters like almond butter, seeds, avocados, coconut, olive oil, grass- fed butter, etc.
- Pay special attention to dinner. Make sure it is satisfying physically and mentally. Eating a plate of steamed spinach and broiled fish may not be that appealing to you … and the kitchen will soon be calling your name.
- Don’t skimp in fiber. Fiber adds bulk to our meals and keeps us feeling full longer. Good fiber sources include vegetables, whole grains, legumes and lentils, chia and flaxseeds, fruit
- Build a night snack into your eating plan if needed. Vowing not eat after dinner may not be realistic, especially if your dinner is on the early side. So plan a portion controlled evening snack – but something that won’t “set you off”
- Plan ahead. If evening snacking is a problem for you, acknowledge it and come up with plan.
- Get it out of the house. Keep trigger foods out of the house. If your hubby wants his ice cream around, ask him to buy a flavor you don’t love. If you have trouble with portion control of nuts, buy the mini bags instead.
- Ask for support. Ask a spouse or significant other for help. While no one wants to be the “police” in a relationship, some gentle support can help. For example, I ask my boyfriend not to keep his goodies in my apartment. He can take them home with him! But I acknowledge evening snacking is a problem time for me
- Break your snacking behavior chain. Break up your routine. We get stuck into ruts. Instead of watching tv after dinner which triggers thoughts of snacks – try something different. Read a book. Put in an exercise DVD. Clean your closet. Take a walk after dinner.
- Prioritize sleep: If you don’t get enough sleep, you will be hungry, especially for carbs and sugar. Why? Because when you deprive yourself of sleep, ghrelin, the hormone that drives hunger goes up and PYY, the hormone that makes you feel full, goes down. So, if you want to control snacking, get those zzz’s.
- Keep healthy snacks in view, hide the others. Brian Wansink, PhD, has done some fascinating research on how arranging your kitchen can slim you down. More on this in a future blog post. But a hint: hide the “trigger” snacks in cabinets or in the back of the refrigerator. Keep the healthy snacks in full view. And keep your kitchen clutter free!
- Indulge in an activity you really like or that relaxes you. Many of us snack as a way to unwind after a long day at work. This was my behavior chain – after a long stressful day/week (especially on a Friday), I would find myself continually looking for food in the evening. I guess I thought it relaxed me. But I found a substitution (kind of embarrassing!) What totally relaxes me or numbs out my stressed brain is watching absurd tv. I rarely have time (or let myself) watch tv as I always have too much work to do. But I found that watching The Bachelor (or a Housewife show) is SO mindless that it totally relaxes me. I would rather lay on the couch and watch this than eat. Kind of pathetic … but it totally works for me! Pic credit
- Stall the urge to eat. You’ve probably heard this before. But it really can work. Trick yourself by saying you can have the snack 30 minutes later. Quite often if you ride out the urge, it will go away. Try to distract yourself in the meantime. Call a friend, read a book, etc.
- Lock it up. This one is radical and is obviously not for everyone. But it can work. I’ve had clients who will discretely lock problems foods in a cabinet so their spouse can’t get into it – at the spouse’s request of course. Stay tuned on a blog post on a gadget that help you work on self control.
- Think about why you want to control night time snacking. Changing habits isn’t easy. In order to make a change, it’s important to identify why it’s important to you. “I want to snack less to help control my morning blood sugars” “I want to snack less to help me lost weight as my spring clothes won’t fit” “I want to snack less because it makes me feel out of control and in a bad mood the next day”
- Visualize and set goals. Visualize how your night will unfold and then set a goal. For example, I will eat a dinner that I really enjoy then will have only one fruit or yogurt after dinner tonight. Keep a chart of how often you have success with your goals. Think positively (I met my goal 3 times this week) versus negatively (I didn’t do it 4 nights)
- Journal what you eat and how you feel. This can be the first step in tackling evening emotional eating. Become aware of what emotions you are feeling when you get the urge to eat.
- Don’t beat yourself up after a night time snack frenzy. Negative thoughts will only worsen the downward spiral. Let it go and move on to how you will handle tonight.
- Try meditation. Many people eat in response to stress or to calm their frenzied minds. Meditation has helped relax millions of people for thousands of years. It can also help with insomnia and medical conditions such as IBS. For guidance, check out some of these meditation apps: Relax Melodies, Buddhify, Meditation Timer Pro, Omvana, Take a Break!, The Mindfulness App, Headspace, Smiling Mind photo credit
- Is something else contributing to your eating? I have clients who take sleeping pills then get the urge to eat. Other clients find that alcohol or smoking pot can trigger the munchies.
- Cognitive behavior therapy (CPT) can help you restructure your thoughts around night time eating.
- Consider working with an intuitive eating specialist. Learn more about intuitive eating.
Do you have any tips that have helped you control your nighttime eating? Share them with us!
I especially love problem-solving, whether it’s helping women defeat issues plaguing them for years, helping a busy executive find practical ways to get heart healthy, or providing tips to help you reverse diabetes. That’s why I’m on a constant quest to expand my knowledge by staying on top of the latest research.