You restrict, deprive yourself, or skip meals throughout the day, which leads you to think about food constantly. You grab random snacks here and there to try to satiate yourself, but you’re not really considering what your body needs or wants. You’re busy – and besides, skipping breakfast might lead to weight loss, right?
You haven’t done any pre-dinner preparation because you’ve never been good at meal planning. So you pick up take-out from your favorite Thai place on the ride home. You feel guilty about what you ate, though, knowing you’ve done this multiple times this week already. Shrugging it off, figuring “I’ve already eaten this much, what’s a little more?,” you continue snacking all evening.
Or maybe when you get home from work, you eat multiple servings of cheese and crackers while you try to cook a “real dinner” – but then don’t feel hungry for the dinner when it’s finished. Later, when you’re hungry again, you snack more.
You have a post-dinner ritual that’s all about overeating and zoning out. You change into loose, comfortable clothes, plop onto the couch with your e-reader, book, or laptop nearby and fire up the TV, settling into hours of mind-numbing entertainment, letting the stress of the work day fade away.
As soon as a commercial break hits, you’re off to the kitchen for snacks. You alternate between sweet and salty (what’s one without the other, really?), so once you’re bored with one flavor, you simply switch to the next. You don’t pay much attention to what you’re eating or how full you’re feeling; you’re just enjoying the taste as you veg out.
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. While night eating syndrome is not the same thing as binge eating disorder, there are certainly some similarities.
According to the DSM-5, which psychologists use to diagnose various mental health issues, night eating syndrome can fall into the feeding and eating disorder category. It can entail eating after waking up in the middle of the night, eating excessively after you’ve already had dinner, or feeling guilt or shame about these habits.
And you’re not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 1.5% of the population in the US – almost five million people! – deals with this.
The effects of nighttime overeating can be significant.
Nightly routines like these are a cause of weight gain for many folks – which is often why we start thinking about these habits in the first place.
Of course, weight gain in and of itself isn’t problematic. But if we know that we’re eating in a way that isn’t in line with our intuition – but, rather, something that feels uncontrollable – we also recognize that we could be toying with our set point weight.
The issue isn’t simply the food that’s being eaten – although you can check out these recipes if you’re looking for new snack options! The bigger problem is that overeating at night can disrupt our sleep, leading to imbalances of hunger and satiety hormones, making it harder for us to recognize when we’re truly hungry or satisfied.
That is to say, night eating in this way can throw our body’s natural rhythm way off balance and cause various health issues as a result!
So what can you do if nighttime eating feels out of control and you want to regain some balance? The answer is actually a lot easier than it may seem: identify the reasons you overeat at night, and then work on changing that trigger.
The truth of the matter is: there is a reason why you’re experiencing what feels like a loss of control at night when it comes to food.
Top 5 ways to stop eating at night
So here are the top five ways to achieve more balance, curb those nighttime cravings, and stop night eating.
1.Eat Enough During the Day
Not eating enough throughout the day “sets the table,” so to speak, for overeating at night. It makes sense, right? If you’ve been depriving your body of the nutrients and energy that it needs to succeed for hours on end, eventually it’s going to get frustrated and go searching for food!
When we restrict our intake, we’re bound to head into a bout of bingeing or overeating because our bodies have a lot of lost time to make up for!
Give yourself permission to eat more regularly, understanding that there isn’t anything virtuous or self-controlled about skipping meals. Make sure to eat well-balanced meals over the course of the day to prevent excessive intake at night.
2. Explore What’s Really Going On
Obviously we need food to live and there are choices that are more nutritious than others to bring us wellness. But food does a lot more for us than just that. Sometimes, it simply brings us joy. No wonder we celebrate birthdays with cake. What better way to infuse a little bit of happiness into your day?
And in a world where we’re often bombarded with negative feelings – whether it’s stress, loneliness, boredom, or procrastination – food can become an easy thing to lean on.
Ask yourself: What purpose is food serving for you? Determining the need that it’s fulfilling can help you make a point of meeting that need in a different way earlier in the day!
For example, is food helping you deal with stress? Add stress management techniques – like yoga or meditation – to your regular routine. Even fifteen minutes a day can really make a difference. Are you turning to food as a way to cure loneliness or boredom? Plan entertaining activities that involve loved ones for the evening instead! Is food your go-to reward for a job well done? Maybe you could take yourself out to the bookstore instead.
3. 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.
4. Shake Up Your Routine
We all have routines – for almost every part of our day. What is the order in which you get ready in the morning? What is the route that you drive to work? What is the script that you follow every time your best friend calls you with a problem? Exactly.
But we all have routines around eating, too – whether it’s time of day, location, or activity. Think about how often you order popcorn when you get to the movie theatre – not necessarily because you’re craving heat lamp-warmed, butter-covered cardboard, but simply because you’re—well—at the movies! We all fall into these routines and associations.
Changing those routines can help break the habit of eating at night.
For example, if you’ve developed the habit of eating while working on your laptop at the kitchen table, move to your office. Or if TV is the cue to begin snacking, consider whether it’s essential to watch TV at night. Maybe you could play a board game or go for a walk instead.
If TV is essential to you, that’s okay, too. Maybe just pair it with a new activity so that food becomes less associated with those murder mysteries you’re so addicted to.
Just remember that it’ll take practice, practice, practice before the new habit feels comfortable and comforting – so don’t give up if it doesn’t feel great at first!
5. Get Plenty of Sleep
That’s right. The number of Z’s that you accumulate can make a big difference in just about everything in your life – including your likelihood to snack mindlessly when you’re not even necessarily hungry! For many people, night eating is related to sleep problems due to anxiety. Addressing the anxiety is an important step for starting to overcome the eating problems.
Developing a consistent evening routine can help. Check out these tips for avoiding sleep deprivation.
When waking up in the middle of night happens – and hunger eventually strikes as a result – simply have a small collection of go-to foods that are easy to eat and filling. This could be a glass of milk, some yogurt, or a banana, for example. Then you can brush your teeth and hop back into bed, satiated and ready to catch more sleep.
Night eating, more often than not, is a response. And sometimes, redirecting that response can be as easy as changing one little thing. Eliminate your top cue for eating, and see how that makes a difference.
Of course, sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes we need more to help us work through deep-seated emotions, hormonal imbalances, and stress management. If this is true for you – if you’ve tried these tips and tricks and are still struggling – there are options available.
You could call your doctor to discuss your situation. You could explore therapy options, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). You could find communities (even online!) of folks who deal with similar struggles and educate yourself about night eating syndrome.
You could also visit Green Mountain at Fox Run and take advantage of the Women’s Center for Binge and Emotional Eating while you’re there. Green Mountain is a healthy living and well-being retreat that takes a non-diet approach to helping women repair their relationships with food and their bodies.
Through a unique psychoeducational program, life management skill-building, movement classes, and the option for therapy, all grounded in mindfulness, Green Mountain is much more than the usual spa, weight loss center or eating disorder program.
A week or two at Green Mountain at Fox Run – located in the mountains of Vermont – may be exactly what you need to begin new habits and find community. Call 802.228.8885 to learn more.
Let us know what’s worked to help with your night eating symptoms in the comments.