Do you find yourself eating in the evenings when you know you’re not really hungry?
If you said yes, you're not alone. It's one of the top frustrations I hear from women: "I do so good all day long, only to blow it every night?!"
While eating in the evening itself is not a bad thing, most late night snacking isn't happening out of hunger, but for other reasons, such as emotional or habit eating.
And when that type of eating happens consistently, it leads to an excess of calories, sugar nd other things that lead to weight gain.
But with the right tips, tools and strategies, you can redirect that energy in healthier ways.
Why does late night snacking happen?
Here are a four of the most triggers:
1. You limit and restrict food during the day.
Research shows that restricting food during they day and skipping meals often leads to overeating later. Whether it's at the end of the day or the end of the week.
Sometimes it's a case of what feels like a sudden spike in food cravings as your body cries out "Feed me!" after ignoring it all day, other times it may be that you find yourself needing some relief from all the drama of the day. You may think "it's no big deal, I didn't eat much today" but the truth is, restricting food and skipping meals typically leads to increased calorie consumption at night. In fact, studies show when you restrict and skip meals, you actually wind up eating more at night than the rest of the day combined. And it's not from eating too much chicken breast and broccoli.
2. You eat to soothe emotions.
If you’re feeling stressed, bored, lonely, tired or sad, it may trigger emotional eating, causing you to reach for the cookies, chips or ice cream. It’s common to feel more in control of your food habits during the daytime, especially if you have a fairly structured scheudule that doesn’t allow for much “free” eating.
Most of us have more downtime in the evenings, which can lead to all sorts of thoughts and emotions as you replay the day. And for many of us it's the first time we've had to press pause all day and check in with how we're doing.
How can you tell if you're reaching for food out of emotion rather than true hunger?
Emotional eating is strong and urgent, and typically only certain foods will fill the need (hint: it's not carrot sticks, a hard boiled egg, or apple slices). Whereas physical hunger ebbs and flows, and basically anything will do the job.
If you find yourself suddenly feeling a strong urge to down a bag of chocolates, grab the pint of ice cream, or crack a bottle of wine, it's probably not hunger. Here'a quick tip: learn to pause and ask yourself, "Am I hungry?" A simple pause offers your brain a moment to catch up with how you're feeling and any thoughts running around, so you can begin to make choices that fulfill the true underlying need.
3. You eat strictly out of habit.
If you tend to grab a snack every time you sit down to watch your favorite show or reach for a glass of wine before curling up on the sofa to scroll your smartphone, it could be that you're simply reaching for food out of habit.
Often referred to as "autopilot" eating, your brain knows what you do most often, and tries to make it easier on you by making it an unconscious "when you do this, we do that" habit. It's great for repetitive actions like brushing your teeth and starting the coffee pot in the morning, not so great when your reaching for the chips and chocolate at 9 p.m. just because it's time to fire up Netflix.
Just another great reason to tune into your body and ask, "Am I really hungry?" before filling up the popcorn bowl.
4. You deserve a “reward”.
Whether it's dealing with a stressful work or home life situation or things not going quite as you'd planned, you may feel like you've earned a reward just for making it through the day. The problem is, that reward is often a calorie bomb full of sugar and fat coming from a box, bag or bottle.
Your brain is really good at telling you that you 'deserve' the chocolate, ice cream or pizza for making it through a tough time. It's your brain's way of trying to soothe, calm and quiet the noise from the day. And it's not necessarily a bad thing, until it starts happening all too often.
Basically it's a different form of emotional eating. Instead of reaching for food, try asking yourself what you could do instead that would be good for body and mind. Go for a walk outside? Soak in a warm bath? Read a good book? There are many ways you can treat yourself that don't involve food, plus you'll save yourself from the dreaded guilt and shame later.
What if none of these seem to apply?
If you observe your habits for a few days and none of these seem to fit the bill, it may just be biology.
According to a study published in the Obesity research journal, the body’s internal clock spikes your hunger levels at around 8pm. And guess what kind of snacks you’re more likely to want at this time? Not carrots or strawberries, typically sweet and salty high carb snacks, like chips, cookies, ice cream, and pizza.
So now what? How can you break the cycle and set yourself up for healthy habit success?
Here are 3 powerful ways to help reduce late night snacking:
1. Mindful Eating
A lot of late night snacking is mindless eating, which means you're often eating on autopilot, distracted and not fully present with food.
How many times do you find yourself snacking in front of the television, scrolling your mobile device, or while you’re cooking, without even thinking about what and how much you're eating? Most of us are truly not aware of just how much extra we’re consuming thanks to mindless eating.
A great way to avoid this common pitfall is by eating more mindfully, Start by removing any distractions that stop you from being fully present with your food and start to make sitting down while you eat a priority. Take sips of water between bites or set your fork or spoon down between bites to slow the eating process. Notice the smells, tastes, and textures of your food as you enjoy it.
Mindful eating has been shown to be one of the simplest and most effective ways to get back in touch with your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues and increase food satisfaction, helping you to stop at enough before you feel stuffed.
2. Change Your Routine
If you notice you do a lot of your nighttime eating as part of your evening routine, it’s time to break the habit by replacing it with something new. Simply put: change your habit loop.
For example, instead of setting your keys down on the counter and opening the pantry door the minute you walk in the door, try putting your keys somewhere else, talking off your shoes and going upstairs to put on some slippers or turn on some music. Or if you find yourself in a habit of snacking while you watch your favorite television shows, try doing something else like having a cup of hot cocoa, knitting, foam rolling, or jotting down a quick to-do list for tomorrow. And in some cases it may be as simple as turning off the light in the kitchen and telling yourself it's "closed for the night." Anything that interrupts or breaks the habit cycle.
3. Push Pause
Next time you feel the urge to grab the snacks, pause and ask yourself, "Am I really hungry?" If the answer is yes, then grab some veggie sticks and hummus, slice up an apple to enjoy with nut butter, or portion out some popcorn in a bowl.
If the answer is no, then drink a big glass of water and wait 15-20 minutes. That's the average amount of time it takes for an emotional craving to pass, and it you're eating out of habit, enough time to interrupt the pattern.
If after the time has passed, you still want whatever it is that you were craving, then go ahead and portion out a single serving and enjoy it -- distraction and guilt free.
Need some help breaking free of emotional eating, habit eating or simply creating a healthier habit loop? Let's chat!