Updated: Jul 19
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 complaints of my clients, doing so "good" all day long, only to wind up scarfing down cookies, chips or ice cream every night.
While eating in the evening itself is not a bad thing when you're hungry, most late night snacking is happening for other reasons and can be a culprit for extra calories and subsequent weight gain. And it can be a hard habit to break if you've been doing it a while.
But with the right tips, tools and strategies, you can redirect that energy into better places.
Why does it happen? Here are a few of the most triggers:
You limit and restrict food during the day. Restricting food all day long, skipping meals and limiting food consumption often leads to an overeat later, whether it's at the end of the day or the end of the week. Sometimes it's a case of the hangries (hungry + angry) that sends you running to eat all the things, a spike in food cravings as your body cries out "Feed me!", or you find yourself just needing some relief from all the rigid food rules. 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.
You eat to soothe emotions. If you’re feeling stressed, bored, lonely, sad, angry, or any other emotion, emotional eating can trigger 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 day that doesn’t allow “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. For many of us it's the first time we 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 hunger? Emotional eating is strong and urgent, and typically only certain foods will fill the need (hint: it's not carrot sticks 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 chocolate bar or crack a bottle of wine, it's probably not hunger. Here'a quick tip: pause and simply ask yourself, "Am I hungry?" A pause offers your brain a moment to catch up so you can feel in control of your choices... because when you feel in control, you act in control.
You're eating strictly out of habit. If you tend to grab a snack when you sit down to watch your favorite show or reach for a glass of wine before scrolling your smartphone, it could be that you're eating simply 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, not so great when your reaching for the chips and chocolate at 9 p.m. Which is why it may start as you grabbing a heaping bowl of popcorn to sit down and enjoy the Thursday night line up, and soon you find you begin to do it more frequently, grabbing the snacks on Monday and Tuesday nights too. Habits are a sneaky that way!
You deserve a “reward” for making it through the day. Maybe things didn’t go as you'd planned, or maybe the day went sideways all together. After a stress filled, crazy day of juggling all-the-things, it's not uncommon to feel like you 'deserve' a reward for making it through. The problem is, that reward is often a calorie bomb in a box, bag or bottle. Your brain is good at telling you that you 'earned' that chocolate, ice cream or wine for making it through a tough time. It's your brains way of trying to soothe, calm and quiet the noise from the day.
Basically it's another form of emotional eating. Instead of reaching for food, try asking yourself what you could do instead. Go for a walk outside? Soak in a warm bath? Read a good book? There are all kinds of ways to reward yourself without sabotaging your healthy living goals... and save yourself the belly bloat filled with regret later too.
What if none of these seem to apply? 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, and pizza.
Tips to help reduce late night snacking:
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 or while you’re cooking… without even thinking about what you’re doing or realizing how much you're eating?
And chances are, you’re not even aware of how much extra you’re actually eating when that happens. One way to avoid this is through mindful eating. Start by removing any distractions that stop you from being fully present with your food and start to make sitting down to eat at the table or countertop bar a priority. Take sips of water between bites, set the fork down to slow the eating process. Notice the smells, tastes, and textures of your food as you eat. Mindful eating is one of the simplest and most effective ways to get back in touch with your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues, helping you to stop at enough before you feel stuffed.
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.
For example, instead of snacking while you watch television, try doing something else while you catch up with your shows, especially during commercial breaks (which can trigger late night snacking by featuring junk food). If you enjoy crafting like knitting or crochet, do that, or if one of your goals is to get in more exercise, use that time to do leg lifts, crunches or squats, maybe you have a bit of ironing that can be done. In some cases it's as simple as closing the kitchen and heading to bed. These are all great and productive habits that help break the bad habit cycle.
Next time you get the urge to start snacking in an evening, pause and ask yourself, "am I really hungry?" If the answer is yes, some veggie sticks and hummus or an apple or banana with nut butter should suffice. 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 break the pattern.
If after the time has passed, you still want whatever it is you were craving, then go ahead and serve up a single serving and enjoy it, distraction free. In many cases, you'll be surprised how quickly the craving passes.
Are you tired of starting over every Monday, hopping from diet to diet, wondering if you'll ever get it "right" so that you can lose the weight and become the best version of you? I’ve got you friend! Come join me inside my FREE women’s-only Facebook community: Eat Better with Coach Mindy. It's for busy women like you who are ready to lose weight, gain energy, get healthy and fit -- without restrictive diets or punishing food rules.