By: Collins Hodges, Psy.D. – Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Raise your hand if you struggle with food cravings late at night? I imagine there are a lot of raised hands out there. Night-time snacking is one of the most common difficulties bariatric patients have in managing caloric intake. There are a variety of reasons why people get into the habit of doing this. Often people will intentionally restrict their daytime eating, thereby depriving themselves of what their body really needs. After all, skipping breakfast helps me lose weight, right? Perhaps 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 workday fade away. Often, it’s because we have more access to food at night, and we are relaxing at home alone — or with our family members. Some of us eat a bit more than we would like to at night as a way to be social or a way to relax. The following are several ways to achieve more balance, curb those nighttime cravings, and stop night eating:
Identify the Cause
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. You may find it useful to look for a specific pattern of events that usually sets off your eating behavior. If you’re not hungry but nonetheless find yourself eating at night, think about what led up to it. Often you will find you are using food to meet a need that isn’t hunger. One effective way to identify the cause of your nighttime eating and the things that trigger it is to keep a “food and mood” diary. Tracking your eating and exercise habits alongside your feelings will help you identify patterns, enabling you to work on breaking any negative cycles of behavior. Of course, people often use comfort food as a way of coping with negative emotions. A diary may be very helpful in tracking this relationship between food and emotion.
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.
Boost Your Protein Intake
Among fats, carbs, and protein, protein is by far the most filling. Protein helps you feel more satisfied throughout the day, stops you from being preoccupied with food, and consequently helps prevent snacking at night. Moreover, high protein intake may boost your metabolism significantly, helping you burn more calories throughout the day.
Eat Regularly Throughout the Day
Overeating at night has been linked to erratic eating patterns that can often be categorized as disordered eating. Eating at planned intervals throughout the day in line with “normal” eating patterns can help keep your blood sugar stable. Generally speaking, eating less than 3 times per day is thought to reduce your ability to control your appetite and food choices.
Don’t Keep Junk Food in the House
If you are prone to eating high-fat, high-sugar junk food at night, remove it from your house. If unhealthy snacks aren’t within easy reach, you are much less likely to eat them. Instead, fill your house with healthy food that you enjoy. Then when you have the urge to eat, you won’t snack on junk. Good snack-friendly foods to have available if you get hungry include fruits, berries, plain yogurt and cottage cheese. These are very filling and probably won’t cause you to overeat in the case that you do end up becoming ravenously hungry in the evening.