How to stop overeating at night is a challenge many of us who have struggled with our weight have encountered. This behaviour can range from simply mindless snacking, to comfort eating in the evening or stress eating at night after a hard day.
Even if you’re looking for advice on how to stop binge eating at night the following tips will help.
Why do people overeat?
The most common reasons for overeating, according to the Huffington Post, are:
- Wanting to be social
- To decompress from a busy or stressful day
- Eating mindlessly – not even really being aware of what goes in your mouth
- Eat for the ‘rush’ of it
- Out of habit
- To comfort ourselves
The last point, comforting ourselves, or emotional eating, is also not simple or straight forward, and within that category there are likely to be a whole range of reasons, unique to each person’s situation. Eating for emotional reasons is actually very normal.
It’s when the behaviour becomes compulsive, is leading to physical and mental health issues, and is interfering with your life in some other way, that it becomes a problem.
What is emotional eating?
Emotional eating, also known as comfort eating or compulsive overeating, is an emotionally driven urge to eat. We crave and then eat the foods we think will bring comfort. It is recognisable by the fact that the urge will often strike suddenly, rather than the slower growth of ‘real’ hunger, and the desire will often be for specific types of food.
Also, depending on your level of awareness, you’ll be able to realise it’s a direct response to an emotional trigger of some sort. As I wrote recently, “I know exactly why I’m doing it – because I’m lonely, or sad, or hating myself. Because I’m craving intimacy, or feeling rebellious. Or because I’m just wanting to wrap a big invisibility cloak around myself and hide from the world for a while.” It can take a while though to get to this level of awareness.
Binge eating at night
Many people are likely to find that emotional eating is worse at night because:
- It’s the end of the day and there’s been a whole day of emotional ‘build up’, so there may be any number of triggers that can cause you to want to overeat.
- There is time to finally stop and ‘relax’ and the opportunity for your brain to start encouraging you to eat
- Boredom. For some people nights are the ‘empty’ hours between dinner and bed and with ‘nothing better to do’, they eat.
- Watching TV. Snacking at night is most likely to happen while watching tv as it’s a mindless activity and feels natural to do the two things together.
- Loneliness. With no one else around and no positive distractions, eating can seem like an obvious way to self-comfort and feel less alone.
How to stop eating at night
As with almost everything I write about in regards to weight loss motivation or general health, I believe the solution is to be found in understanding both the psychological issues and the ‘mechanics’ of why we eat the way we do and it’s essential to work on both at the same time.
It’s easy to tell ourselves that provided we make it hard enough to access those ‘problem’ foods and have enough willpower then we won’t overeat, but when an emotionally-driven urge to eat hits, many of us would cross the sahara to get to a packet of chocolate biscuits. You absolutely must work on both the ‘head stuff’ and the ‘practical stuff’ simultaneously to have a chance of success. With that in mind, here are my top tips for how to stop overeating at night.
Work out what the real problem is: emotional upset, boredom, loneliness, self-loathing, etc. This is no small task and it can be helpful to invest in a health coach or counsellor to help tease this out. In my case I found through literally years of self-exploration that the main drivers for me had been feeling undeserving of a better body than what I had, rebellion against external pressures, protecting myself from criticism, fear of being desired, and lack of emotional connection and intimacy in my life.
So when I’m tempted to overeat, it’s likely to be one of these reasons coming back to the fore, and the trigger can be as simple as an off-the-cuff comment someone makes, or a niggling thought that starts in the back of my mind for seemingly no reason at all.
I have also more recently learnt about Tony Robbins’ 6 core needs that every human being has and how the hierarchy of these needs will differ from person-to-person. In my case the need for significance – feeling like I matter – is high on the list. So when my need for significance is not being met, I’ll likely find other unhealthy ways to meet it, like eating to make myself better.
So the best place to start is to brainstorm what the emotional reasons behind your urge to overeat are. And this is something you need to commit to being honest with yourself about, free of judgement. If you’re tempted to say “that can’t possibly be the reason” and move on to search for a ‘better’ reason, don’t. The reasons are what they are and even if you think it’s not a good enough reason, note it down and take it seriously.
You’ll then need to be willing to invest time in finding other ways to think about whatever that emotional response means, because our thoughts create our emotions. We create the meaning we give to events ourselves, in our own heads, so the best possible way to address emotional eating in the longer term is to completely reframe our thinking about the issues rather than jumping straight to strategies for how to handle the triggers when they arise.
Once you have your list, and while you’re doing the medium-term work of exploring how you think about certain factors/triggers in your life and then emotionally respond, brainstorm other ways you can meet that emotional need in the shorter term.
For example if the issue is loneliness, can you phone a friend, join an internet forum or find a regular social activity you can attend in the evening? Likewise, if it’s boredom, can you invest in learning a new skill in the evenings, exercising instead of eating, or just read a good book? If you’re trying to self-soothe, perhaps a bath or a massage and some good music will help.
Other ways to stop eating
At the same time as working on the emotional drivers there are of course practical steps you can take to make it harder to overeat. Other ways to avoid overeating can include:
- Plan your dinner and eat it later. If you plan a healthy dinner that may take a little longer to prepare than just putting a frozen meal in the microwave, and you take the time to enjoy the preparation and the ritual of sitting down to eat, you may find you have less desire to snack later in the evening. And if you eat later so that less time will pass between dinner and bed, this may help too.
- Think carefully about what you eat for dinner. Low carb, high protein and high fat meals are the best combination for ensuring your blood sugar doesn’t dip too low after dinner, causing you to feel the need to eat later in the evening. Avoid wheat and sugar with dinner if possible, as these are foods that naturally trigger cravings, and may lead you to want to eat more than you really need to.
- Restrict your options:
- Don’t have ‘trigger’ foods in the house, that is those foods that you can’t resist when you see them in the cupboard/fridge, and/or those foods that once you start eating you find difficult to stop.
- Have a healthier ‘go to’ instead, so that when the urge to eat is strong, you can indulge it a little but in a less damaging way.
- Clean your teeth to help take the taste of food out of your mouth and send your body the ‘it’s bedtime’ signal, even if you’re not planning to go to sleep for a few hours yet.
- Drink lots of water. Fill your tummy up as much as you can so there’s literally no room for food. This is unlikely to work on its own, but can be effective combined with other strategies.
- Distract yourself. It may sound simple but distracting yourself with another activity, preferably something that will occupy your mind as well as your body, can be very powerful. As mentioned earlier this activity could be something you’ve particularly chosen because it’s linked to the emotional drivers you’re experiencing.
- Go to bed earlier, perhaps after a bath so you’ll fall asleep more easily and not lie awake thinking about food.
- Finally, tap it out. I’m a big fan of ‘tapping’ or Emotional Freedom Technique, which as I’ve written about here in reviewing Jessica Ortner’s book on the subject, is a fantastic way to conquer emotional eating both in the immediate moment and for the longer term
Emotional eating, particularly at night, is a challenge that can be solved through a clever combination of working on the ‘emotional drivers’ to eat while utilising other practical ways to overcome it. I hope you’ve found the above insights and tips useful.
PS. Is eating at night a problem for you? What strategies do you use? Pop a comment in below and let me know.
PPS. Most images sourced from Bigstock.com.