You feel like you do ok with your eating all day but when night time comes, you sometimes feel like you can’t curb your hunger. You have dinner but before the meal is over, you are already thinking about the cheese popcorn in the pantry. You buy a snack for your kids but you find yourself eating most of it when you’re packing their lunches at night. And what feels worst of all is that you usually do it when no one else is looking. You’re frustrated. This behavior is interfering with your weight loss goals, how you feel about yourself and you’re so tired of going to bed full and bloated. Every day you get up and think to yourself “I’m not going to pick after dinner tonight!” but then another day happens and you did it again. Uggg. You totally feel like you have no control over this!
Here’s something that might be hard to hear but you need to know it: Night time eating is not beyond your control. We tell ourselves it is and we’re constantly told that it is so we come to believe that the responsibility lies somewhere outside of us. What sucks about believing that is that it keeps us stuck and feeling helpless. It keeps us feeling like we’ll never get better because we’re not in power. I’m asking you to believe that you do have the power to change. Believing that’s even possible is the only way we ever make progress.
There are things we do, habits, foods we eat and ways we think about ourselves that keep us getting up and heading into the kitchen. To stop this habit (because that is what it ultimately is now) we have to look at each of these things and see how they might be creating a situation where we are more tempted to eat. A simple example of one of the ways we keep ourselves stuck in this pattern is that if you are under eating or eating low quality refined carbs all day long, there is no way that you won’t be tempted to eat in the evening. It becomes basic math at that point.
If you work to put all 10 of these things into your life, you will find that the urge to eat when you aren’t hungry is not as strong. Think of these tips as armor, as protection, as fortitude to not do what you’ve always done – to have the strength to do something different, to be thoughtful about our choices and make caring for ourselves a priority.
Please know that there are a lot of ways out of this but there isn’t just one single “trick” or tweak you can use to stop it from happening.There’s no quick fix for most of us and recognizing that can go a long way in your success. Just brushing your teeth after dinner or having a glass of water won’t be enough – you need to look deeper at your whole day and food “life” to build up the ability to resist overeating. Resist probably isn’t the right word – when you are eating the right things for your body and doing it for the right reasons, not overeating can be easy (and I only know this now after years of struggling).
If we want to stop nighttime eating, or overeating in general we have to look at our whole “eating life”, act like a detective and “investigate” ourselves and then be committed to taking new actions. This is how we effectively make changes.
Here are 10 of my best tips to stop nighttime eating:
1. Make sure your meals are solid.
By “solid” I mean that they need to contain enough nutrition to get you to the next meal. Whether you choose to do 3 meals a day or smaller more frequent meals is up to you – but make them count. Your meals should always contain a good amount of protein, fat and fiber. An iceberg lettuce salad with fat free dressing isn’t even going to get you through an hour and if you actually ate your own arm later I would not be that surprised!
Eat real foods that satisfy and sustain you. One of the most common reasons we overeat is because we’re actually HUNGRY! We starve ourselves all day, limiting calories and portions or eating foods that don’t have any staying power (foods lacking protein, fiber or fat) and when we finally get home and settle in for the night, we can’t control ourselves because there isn’t enough energy in our body and our monkey brain takes over (usually going for simple carbohydrates like sugar and refined flours). Overeating is way less likely when you actually have quality food in your body keeping things humming.
2. Snacks too.
If you’re eating enough at each meal, it’s possible to even skip snacking (and you won’t miss it) but I know for some of you that isn’t going to happen so if you’re going to have a few snacks a day – make them nutritious ones! Nutritious doesn’t have to mean boring, bland or not fun – an apple with peanut butter, an avocado w/ sea salt or hummus with sliced vegetables are all great choices. If you can’t think of a well rounded snack (remember: protein, fiber AND fat), think of snack time as another meal time, even if just a small one – eat leftovers from dinner, have some oatmeal – whatever would make a high quality meal would also work as a snack even if you need to make it a smaller portion.
3. Plan ahead.
Look, none of us want to think about food, shopping and preparing it more than we have to. We have enough to do already. But, if you are serious about wanting to make any changes to your diet or eating habits, they are not going to happen unless you have a plan in place and you are willing to make changes. You don’t need to know what you are eating every day for the next month, but you do need to know that you have your next few meals at your fingertips and can pull it together relatively easily. If you come home from work and are starving and don’t have a meal in mind (and ingredients ready to go), you’re going to order take out, eat all the ice cream in the freezer or chow down on a bag of chips. If you planned ahead and know you are coming home to a quinoa salad that you already made waiting for you in the fridge or that you have vegetables all chopped up so that you can make a fast stir fry, you will feel less out of control and again, less tempted by the stuff you don’t want to eat in the first place.
You can’t get from where you are to where you want to go without actually taking some concrete changes and that does include spending some time each week on preparing healthy foods. Please don’t tell me you don’t have time to prepare healthy food. You have the same amount of time as everyone else and quality food really deserves to be higher on all our priority lists. It’s literally what we are made of. It matters.
If you hate thinking about what to eat and shopping you can also try one of those meal delivery services like HelloFresh, Plated or Blue Apron where they deliver a few meals worth of ingredients for specific recipes each week. We actually tried Hello Fresh this past week and the three meals we had were actually really good. It was a nice treat to have food delivered on my doorstep and know what I was making on certain nights without having to think about it and all 3 were super easy to make. I’m kind of a skeptic but I was pleasantly surprised (I also like that I can turn my subscription on and off each week) and we will use them occasionally. If you want to try HelloFresh, I have a referral code you can use and you’ll get $40 off your first delivery – enter TNNUAR at checkout (FYI – I get $20 off my own delivery if you use it). I’m hoping to try out Plated and Blue Apron in the coming months too and I will do a write up of all 3 if I do!
4. Stop eating foods you hate.
If we’re going to make sure we’re eating balanced meals and snacks and we’re taking the time to prepare them so that we have something solid to eat, it makes absolutely no sense to dread eating it. If you hate bean sprouts, don’t eat them. If you hate cold salads, don’t eat them. If chicken is not your favorite, don’t eat it. There is a whole world of healthy, nutritious whole foods that can supply your body with the energy it needs – you don’t have to eat things you don’t like. If we spend all day feeling like we’re only putting food in our mouths that we abhor, it’s going to send us running to the kitchen faster than our feet can carry us. How many times have you finished a meal that tasted like cardboard and even though you technically were full, you found yourself thinking about when and how you could eat something else? It will gnaw at you all day. Don’t do this to yourself. Eating better doesn’t mean having your food taste like crap. Eat food that you enjoy (or at least don’t mind) and there will be less temptation in the kitchen.
What whole foods (fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds etc) do you enjoy? Focus on increasing the ones that you are more than willing to eat.
5. But be willing to try new things.
It’s totally fine if you hate kale but you are open to eating other greens. Maybe you don’t like sweet potatoes but you are a fan of butternut squash. Cool. But if you tell me you hate all vegetables, I’m going to call bullshit (or assume that you are still 10 years old). There is no way in the world that you have tried every vegetable out there and you certainly haven’t had each one prepared multiple ways. If you hate vegetables, what is it that you hate about them? Odds are you just don’t like the way they’ve been prepared most of the times you have eaten them. No one likes overcooked carrots or the faintly metal flavored peas from a can and if you are still eating fat-free dressings on your salads, it’s probably the dressing you don’t like, not the poor vegetables. Open your mind and try new foods and new recipes. Find at least a few new ways that you do like. I personally hate raw mushrooms but sauteed?! I love them! Also note that our tastes change over time. I remember hating tomatoes and onions as a teenager and even in my early 20’s, but I actually eat them all the time now (in fact, I get mild anxiety when the pantry is running low on onions – we use them in everything here!). You’re an adult, so eat like one.
Still think you hate vegetables? You think quinoa is awful? beans are gross? Come over my house for dinner and I will show you differently.
6. Commit fully.
When you do decide to eat something not so nutritious – candy, ice cream, chips etc – don’t eat it UNLESS you can let yourself truly enjoy it. Commit to eating it and allow yourself to feel nothing but joy in every bite. If you know it will lead you to a dark path of emotion filled with shame and other bad feelings, it’s best to find something more wholesome that will satisfy the craving you’re after. We don’t want to eat in shame – it just keeps us repeating the behavior we want to stop. Indulging in negative feelings about food during and after we eat will lead you to the very night time binge you’re trying to avoid by reading this post. What’s so wrong with enjoying the food you do put in your mouth anyway??
7. Eat fat. No really. Eat fat.
Again, I’m going to hammer on those of you who are still trying to find peace with food by restricting calories and eating low-fat or no-fat everything. You will NEVER be satisfied eating fat free candy bars and fat free cheeses and a binge will always be around the corner when you try to satisfy yourself this way. You will always be looking for another taste because you never got what you were looking for. If eating fat free really was the secret to not overeating and to losing weight, none of us would struggle with these things. It didn’t work in the 90’s and it’s still not working now. If you desperately want a candy bar (or cheese), have one and make sure it is exactly what you want. No one overeats or “gets fat” because they ate one full fat candy bar a week. It’s the 700 fat free candy bars we’ve eaten in secret this year (and the 250 “Skinny” ice creams we ate after those because the candy bar didn’t cut it) that led to the weight gain. Please put fat back in your diet and you will notice the urge to scavenge in the kitchen after dinner is majorly lessoned.
8. Sit down when you eat, eat in front of others if they are there and chew thoroughly.
I’ll bet that when your nighttime overeating pops up you find that you are shoveling food in your mouth quickly and hardly chewing. You’re probably also doing it in secret – after the kids have gone to bed and maybe while your husband is watching TV or is taking a shower. You might pick while you are putting dinner away. You might graze while packing lunches for tomorrow. You might get up from the couch on every commercial break to sneak a handful of chocolate chips – knowing that you can swallow them quick enough that when you come back to the room no one will even know that you had them! I’m not being cruel by calling these things out. I’m not judging you if you are doing this – I know these things because I have done all of them myself.
Years ago, I remember waiting until my husband (“boyfriend” at the time) went outside for a cigarette so that I could scarf down another piece of pizza. He wouldn’t have cared if I had a piece of pizza in front of him (it was what we had for dinner anyhow) but I knew it was more than I needed to eat because I wasn’t hungry, I just “wanted it” – so I felt I had to hide it. I ran to the kitchen and stood over the pizza box, inhaling the bread as fast as I could. I barely made it back to the living room by the time he came back in. I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t even taste it. And my throat actually hurt from trying to eat it so fast so I wouldn’t be caught. Can you relate to any of this? If you eat in secret, if you eat quickly and you eat standing up you are making it too easy for you to keep eating at night. If you’re going to eat, please resolve to do these three things: You will sit down, you will chew thoroughly and if there is someone else in the home, you will eat in front of them. If you are unwilling to do those things, you are not hungry. You are eating to fill another need (that’s another post) and you are feeling ashamed of your eating. We don’t want to eat in shame (remember it keeps us in the cycle). Slow down. Chew well. Sit down and enjoy. And anything you are willing to eat shouldn’t be hidden.
9. Talk about it.
Most problems in life feel less overwhelming if we have someone we can share our struggle with. If you are dealing with this and yet no one in your life knows about it, it’s going to feel like this dark looming cloud in your life. Talking about it will bring you some emotional relief (like you’ve been carrying a suitcase on your back and suddenly it’s gone!) and it can also give you a source of support and accountability. Tell a friend that you can’t stop eating at night and you might be amazed when they tell you they’ve been there too and share what helped them stop . . .or you may share with your husband that you want to stop eating less after dinner and he may say “I didn’t even know you were eating anything after dinner!” and you can tell him that you tend to sneak bites in between commercial breaks of your favorite shows. You can then ask him to check in with you if he sees you getting up in between commercials. This might be totally out of your comfort zone (and I’d put money on it that it is if you are currently in the midst of this) but there is some way, someone in your life with whom you can share your challenges with. Knowing that someone else understands or that there is someone else who can help hold you accountable can be a huge motivator in sticking to changes. And keeping it all inside just gives it more power over you.
If you don’t feel like you can share with the people closest to you, do you think there might be a part of you who doesn’t want to stop this behavior? I get it – we hate and love our eating at the same time. It’s comfort and torture. It’s love and disgust. This might be a big step for you so for now, just think about who you could share with and what you might say if you had the conversation. It doesn’t have to big a big deal or a huge reveal – it can be as simple as “Hey, i’m having a tough time controlling myself from eating tortilla chips lately and I don’t want to eat them anymore. Do you mind if we don’t keep them in the house for a little while?” You might be worrying what they’re going to think of you when you tell them, but guess what? Everyone has some part of themselves that they think is some huge awful secret thing that in actuality isn’t a big deal to other people. You share something with them and next thing you know, they’re sharing something that’s been burdening them too. It’s healing for everyone. And if someone makes fun of you for revealing your pain to them? Fuck them, they’re an insensitive asshole and you can take some pride in knowing that you’re more evolved than them.
10. Figure out what you are truly hungry for.
This might be obvious, and in fact, if you read my posts normally you probably were wondering when I was going to say this! If you’re not eating at night because you are hungry (working in #1, #2 and #7 will help manage that), you are probably eating because there is something else you are hungry for. You might be at that point in your life when you wish you had spent more time on your art, you might be avoiding acknowledging that you’re in a loveless relationship, or you might be longing for a change in scenery and it’s time for a move to a big city. The only person who knows what you are craving in your life is you and you will keep eating at night until you figure out what that hunger is and give yourself permission to have it.
We head into the kitchen because we feel something we don’t like or are uncomfortable with. We might be triggered by an event on a specific day that brought up these feelings or it might be a feeling we have daily.
Try this exercise
To start to figure out what you are hungry for, ask yourself these questions (on paper please!):
What am I feeling when I get up to eat?
What is it? Describe the feeling the best way you can.
Why do you think you don’t want to feel this feeling?
What will happen if you allow the uncomfortable/painful feeling to just be?
What do you think this feeling is trying to tell you?
What would you like to feel instead of this?
What do you think needs to happen in order for you to feel this (your preferred) way?
Write these down, without any requirement that you figure it out right now. Sleep on it. Let your thoughts marinate a bit. You may find that you wake up knowing exactly what you are hungry for (and then we talk about how you can get it) or you might find it hits you three weeks from now when you are in the grocery store. We have so much wisdom inside us and if we take the time to look for our own answers and do the work it takes to reveal and apply them, sometimes we find some really good stuff we didn’t even know was there! Trust that you have the answers and will figure it out!
I hope you find the tips in this post helpful and take the time to investigate your own eating life to lessen your night time eating! You have more control over your eating than you think but it does take some active changes to feel that way. These are all things I use regularly to keep myself on track and I can’t tell you how much easier my relationship with food is when I pay attention to these things.
What has helped you keep your own nighttime eating in check? And what do you find still troubles you? I’d love to hear from you, you can reach me either in the comments or you can send me an email.
As an ex-restaurant server, I have always been amazed at the number of adults who have stories in mind when it comes to food. “I don’t like onions or tomatoes or mushrooms…” I think it’s important to always try new foods, and thoroughly enjoy doing so! Great post, Andrea!
Thanks Amy! You’re right – they are stories, aren’t they? Stories we tell ourselves over and over again without question! I used to wait tables too and encountered a lot of people like that! Thanks for stopping by!