Snacking at night. I can’t tell you how often I hear this come up as a struggle for people. Maybe it is for you, too. You do okay during the day when you’re busy, but once you’re home and relaxing, you become an eating machine.
Believe me, I can relate. I’ve had my own issues with this, too. And what makes it more challenging is that it can come up for different reasons.
Although to clarify, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with an evening snack, particularly if you’re actually hungry. But if you’re regularly overeating at night, and this is negatively impacting you – for instance, you might not sleep well if your stomach is overfull – it’s worth looking at.
So here are some questions to get you started on identifying what’s going on.
Question 1 – Are you eating enough during the day?
One simple reason you might snack at night is because – you’re hungry!
If you don’t eat enough during the day, by the time evening rolls around, you could be ravenous. So you eat. And eat some more. And it snowballs until you’ve had far more than you need.
Then this can become a vicious cycle because you’re probably not hungry the next morning. You put off eating, and you get caught up in other things. You don’t end up having much to eat until dinner – and then the whole thing starts again.
If this describes you, start noticing how much you’re eating during the day. And see if you’re ignoring hunger cues because you’re busy with other things.
If it seems like you’re not eating enough, you could try adding a mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon snack. Or if your schedule doesn’t work well for snacks, add a little more to your breakfast and/or lunch.
This is something I’ve run into recently. I sometimes focus so much on not overeating that I don’t have enough. But when I added just one more small thing to both breakfast and lunch, it made a big difference at night.
Question 2 – Are you eating the right kinds of food?
Different kinds of food impact us differently. Our bodies handle protein one way, fat another way, and carbs yet a third way. Plus it depends on whether it’s a simple or complex carb. Oh, and don’t forget fiber.
I’m not a nutritionist, so I can’t go into a lot of detail. What I can tell you is that you want a balance of all these, and that it helps to pay attention to how you feel after eating certain foods.
For instance, if you just have simple carbs for a meal, you’re apt to crash not long after. You’ll probably want to eat again, regardless of how many calories you’ve consumed.
But protein and fiber fill you up more, and complex carbs will sustain you longer, while fats make your food more satisfying.
I recently spoke with someone who said she’s added more complex carbs to her meals, and she’s feeling more satisfied and less likely to overeat. So it’s worth seeing if your urge to snack changes depending on what you eat.
Question 3 – Are you eating for something to do?
Boredom is one of the biggest reasons people eat when they’re not hungry. So if you fall into this category, know you’re in good company!
I also read an interesting article recently that indicates people often feel more satisfied if they’re doing something with their hands. This may be why so many of us eat while doing something else, like watching TV or reading, because we’re looking for that feeling of having our hands occupied.
But this probably isn’t the best reason to eat. So if this applies to you, you could consider if there’s something else you’d rather be doing.
If you enjoy reading but want something more to do with your hands than hold the book (or other reading device), maybe you could use some kind of fidget spinner or worry beads. Same for TV. Of course, you have far more options than just fidget spinners these days – check out some cool devices here.
Or maybe you want to do something else entirely, like go for a walk, garden, color, draw, meditate, sing or dance to your favorite songs, do yoga, play with pets, have a game night, take an online class, or more. You have so many choices!
Question 4 – Are you using food to relax?
Eating can be very calming. It certainly grounds you, gives you something real and solid to focus on. But if you’re eating because you’re stressed, you face a couple of problems.
From a purely physical perspective, you don’t digest as well under stress.
You’re also not apt to make the best choices of food, or pay enough attention when eating to fully enjoy what you have.
And you’re more likely to overeat, which typically has the opposite effect of relaxing you.
So it’s worth thinking about what else you can do to relax. Deep breathing exercises are one option, or meditation, getting out in nature, and more. Be creative and see what might appeal to you.
Question 5 – Are you eating so you won’t get hungry later?
No one wants to wake up starving in the middle of the night. I get that. Or if you’re going to be out running errands for a while, or at an evening meeting, you might want to eat a lot beforehand so you don’t risk getting hungry when you’re out.
Again, this can backfire, due to some of the same issues mentioned in question 1. And as mentioned in question 2, depending on what you have, you still might feel hungry after eating.
The best approach here is to pay close attention to your hunger and fullness cues to see where you’re at when you want to eat.
Also, if you’re going to be out and about, see if you can bring a snack. Or worst-case scenario, if you eat beforehand to the point where you’re no longer hungry, odds are you won’t starve in a couple of hours, so you could probably wait to see how hungry you are when you get home.
Question 6 – Are you eating to distract yourself from deeper issues?
This is the tough one. If deeper things are going on in your life, it can be really hard to face them. Because if you acknowledge them, you can feel like you have to fix them – but maybe you can’t fix them. So why deal with it at all?
It’s true that you can’t control external forces, or what other people do. For instance, if your partner lost their job and now you’re the only earner, you can’t magically get them another job.
Or if someone is ill or dies, you can’t change that.
Whatever the situation is, maybe it feels easier to eat and ignore the underlying stuff. And I sympathize – I really do. I’ve done it myself.
But let me ask you a couple of questions. How will you feel if, a year or six months from now, the issue is still there, maybe even worse because you haven’t acknowledged it? For example, if you’re lonely, burying that may only make you feel more isolated.
And is the reality of acknowledging the issue really any more painful than carrying that hidden wound, or inventing every possible worst-case scenario?
Remember, too, that acknowledging doesn’t make you responsible for a miracle cure. It just means accepting the truth. And then deciding how you want to move forward. Even if you do nothing else, acknowledgement is often freeing – and it may help you decide on a next step.
Be a detective
In short, you want to be a detective about this. Do some sleuthing and experimentation, and if you gain any insights, please share – I’d love to hear about them!