Of all the dietary issues that present in practice, I find it of interest that ‘night eating’, one of the most significant diet derailers, is also one of the least talked about. In this context I am not talking about getting out of bed at 2am and searching the cupboard for sweet foods, rather the nightly habit of sitting down after a meal and completely overindulging in high calorie snacks to end the day. Not only does this nasty habit make it almost impossible to lose weight, but what begins as a small treat to finish off the day’s eating often ends up as an entire packet of biscuits, or block of chocolate on too regular an occasion.
When is night eating a problem?
Enjoying sweet foods after the evening meal can be a habit that forms in childhood or one that evolves over time. A small serve of pudding, biscuit with a cup of tea or some fruit or yoghurt can be a harmless, or depending on the choice of snack, nutritious addition to one’s day and indeed many families enjoy a small dessert regularly without any associated problems. These nightly food rituals are not what I am talking about in this piece. Rather, I am talking about the regular evening binges that completely derail ones calorie intake. The nightly overeating that acts to soothe another emotion – loneliness, frustration, boredom and overeating that can become a deeply entrenched habit, and as such can be very difficult to break.
How do you know if you have a night eating problem?
Night eating can be defined as an issue when it is stopping you from reaching a particular goal, whether this be weight loss or just weight control; when it is mentally distracting you from what you really should be doing or when it results in your feeling terrible on a regular basis. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a biscuit or two, but when you demolish an entire packet for the sake of it, or when you cannot have any sweet food in the house for fear of binging then we have a problem.
How do you take control of night eating?
Unfortunately when it comes to self-management, there is no quick fix. It comes down to identifying that you do have a problem and committing to fixing it. No one is going to come to your home and help you stop eating. No one is going to hold your hand at the supermarket and stop you physically from putting the chocolate and biscuits in the trolley. You are the only one who can take an active step to stopping this behaviour.
A good starting point is to identify when it happens. Is it when you are home alone? Or anytime you are watching TV? Is it when you are online or when you stay up extra late. Identifying your riskiest time for night eating is the first step in taking control of it.
Next, it is about self-management. If you are buying large portions of high calorie, high fat foods, stop. Throw away extras at home. Get busy so that you are not at home alone. Or watch less TV so it does not act as a trigger to eat. Clear action steps are crucial if you really want to make sustainable changes.
Finally, long term the ideal outcome is for you to have some clear rules that you find easy to stick to. This may mean you do have one small, portion and calorie controlled treat each night and that is it. Or that you do not eat after dinner, no exceptions. Every one of us will need a different rule that suits the goals we have for our body and our health but when we have a rule we are comfortable with, it becomes easy to follow. It is when we deprive ourselves or play mind games because we are feeling unsatisfied that the games and night eating will continue. Finally remember, the first night you try and break a habit, it is difficult. The second, not so easy either but once you get 3-4 days under your belt, you will be well on your way to owning and managing your night eating.