When it comes to healthy eating, many people find that the evening time can be their nemesis. They do ‘so well’ all day and then once the sun sets – the gremlin emerges and night time eating can become well, a bit of a spectacle. Many of the people I have spoken to in my practice have found themselves over eating when evening comes and in some cases have even experienced binging or feeling completely and utterly out of control.
Firstly, over eating in the evening isn’t a problem in itself. It is however a problem if it leaves you feeling regularly uncomfortable, shameful or out of control around food. Maybe it’s’ that one biscuit that turns into a whole packet. Maybe it’s that ‘little bit of chocolate’ that ends up being an entire bar. Or, maybe you just continuously find yourself grabbing something, nightly, whether you’re hungry or not.
I’ve found that generally it boils down to a few main reasons. Knowing these reasons can help you to reflect on your daily habits and patterns and make some changes that might lead to a more balanced approach to eating throughout the day and feed the true need when eating doesn’t come from hunger.
1. You didn’t eat enough through the day. This may seem like a no-brainer but so many people live in such a state of rush and this cycle of 'busyness' can lead to skipping meals, holding out, and ending up a ravenous beast by the time you walk through the door at home. We wonder why we’re so ‘out of control’ and often find fault in our actions when really, it’s just your body saying ‘feed me’.
Action step: With basic planning you can set yourself up to have regular meals (whatever that will look like for you) and a substantial dinner which will leave you satisfied by the time the evening creeps in. Is meal planning a chore, it doesn't have to be! Here's my go-to when it comes to meal planning
2. You didn’t eat satisfying foods: Are you on another diet? ‘Watching what you eat’?
Here’s a likely scenario; Breakfast is a bit of fruit with yogurt or a smoothie on the go. Lunch, some salad with chicken breast and maybe a few sunflower seeds (no dressing of course!) Dinner, some fresh fish with cauliflower rice and green veggies. Suddenly, it’s evening time and the biscuits are calling your name. You think, I’ll just have one.. no harm done… and then, suddenly they’re gone. Again. Why stop at one? You ask. You’ll just get back to the diet tomorrow. Fresh start! Right?
And the cycle continues. Eating to be ‘good’ isn’t the same as eating to be well. Part of being well and healthy involves enjoying the foods you’re eating and if you’re not getting enough or not eating satisfying foods the result can often lead to overdoing it at some point or another. Deprivation leads to cravings – Restriction leads to over eating and binging.
Action step: Try to incorporate more foods that you enjoy. Foods that are nutritionally great and taste great too. Want a sandwich but choosing a salad instead? Why not cram that salad and sliced meats into a delicious homemade sandwich with whole grain bread and your favourite toppings. You’ll feel far more satisfied and potentially end up with less overall. Want a piece of chocolate or two, go for it! Yes, even if it’s only lunchtime.
3. You didn’t get enough nutritionally: Have a think back to your usual fare through the day. Is it balanced? Do you have good sources of healthy fats, protein and veggies/carbs with every meal? Sometimes going low carb doesn’t work for everyone, and can lead to binging or craving carbs in the evenings. Sometimes we forget protein because Weetbix or toast is just so much easier to grab. Fat is often feared but so important for health and satiety
Action step: Try adding in some carbs or protein if you notice there is a gap. My favourite sources of carbs are sourdough bread, kumara, rice, oats etc. Protein can be anything from nuts and seeds to beef, fish or chicken. What’s your plate looking like?
4. There may be a deeper need: Sometimes, if it’s nothing to do with the quality, amount or satisfaction level of that day’s food choices – overeating at night could be because of one of many possible triggers:
Behavioural: Perhaps you’ve eaten at night regularly for so long that it has become a habit? Perhaps your body is simply saying – hey! Remember? It’s time to eat now. When really, no actual hunger is present.
Emotional: You’ve had a really shit day, and food seems the logical choice for momentary pleasure or distraction from these unwanted feelings. After all, you deserve it. And while there’s nothing morally wrong with enjoying some treats after a bad day, if it leaves you feeling worthless or out of control, then it can be problematic. Perhaps you’re stressed, anxious, angry with your partner, they don’t call it comfort food for nothing.
Physical: Our appetite can increase by 25% when you’re tired. Perhaps you just need to go to bed a bit earlier tonight.
Cognitive: This one has to do with our thoughts. Common thoughts around nighttime eating include’ I’ve been so ‘good’ all day, I deserve it or after eating to the point of being horribly uncomfortable – “I’ll just get back to the diet tomorrow”. This can also been known as ‘last supper mentality’ which is common with dieting. We have a self imposed scarcity put upon ourselves and so forbidden foods become oh so appealing.
Action step: If possible, try to stop before grabbing food and determine what the trigger is that’s present. Once you’ve figured that out – try to find a suitable alternative that will feed the true need. If you’re sad, call a friend or journal. Angry? Scream into a pillow or go for a walk. Sleepy, go tuck yourself in for the night, you’ve had a big day!
The thing is with non-hunger triggers, if you’re not hungry in the first place, no amount of food will satisfy you.
Remember, you’re not a bad person if you over eat at night, and if you have no issue with it, go for it, you’re a grown up! But, if you’re struggling, and feeling out of control around food try some of the actions steps above and let me know how you get on.