Outsmart the Nighttime Eating
By Emily York, PhD and Kalin Burkhardt, MS
Do you sometimes sneak a late-night snack, even after you’ve had dinner? Do you continue eating late into the night? Have you ever wondered why you crave more sugar and other junk foods at nighttime?
Well, if this happens to you, you’re not alone. The evening is often the most challenging time for unplanned eating and grazing. People frequently find themselves staying up late at night because they cannot sleep. Even worse, they spend that time eating out of boredom, while watching TV, or to deal with unwanted emotions, such as depression or anxiety. People who struggle with evening or night eating often report not having an appetite in the morning and often do not have their first meal until late in the afternoon or evening. This pattern can lead to overeating in the evening and can affect sleep. This pattern is known as night-eating syndrome (NES) and is considered to be an eating disorder that is also strongly related to negative mood and sleep problems.
Albert Stunkard, MD, at University of Pennsylvania’s Weight and Eating Disorders Program has conducted extensive research on NES. He explained, “People who fall prey to this syndrome are not simply indulging in a bad habit. They have a real clinical illness, reflected by changes in hormone levels.”
There are several behavioral changes that people who struggle with nighttime eating can do to reduce their strong desire to eat in the evening. One of the first things is to eat nourishing meals throughout the day. This will help to balance out blood sugar levels and metabolism to avoid feeling starving by dinnertime and reaching for comfort food. Eating multiple structured meals during the day can also curb the temptation to snack during the evening. When we feel the need to continue eating after dinner, it is often due to lacking nutrients that we could be getting from meals earlier in the day.
Another strategy is to go to bed earlier. When we are awake later in the evening, we are more likely to want to snack while watching TV or doing many other passive activities. People often stay up late at night while snacking out of habit or because they have difficulty falling asleep. Changing your evening routine can help you to get a more restful night of sleep. About an hour or so before you want to be in bed, turn off the TV or computer and do something soothing. This wind-down routine could include taking a warm bath or shower, reading a good book, or listening to calming music. Use this time to prepare yourself for sleep by brushing your teeth and doing any other tasks that you typically do before bed that tell your body it’s time to start unwinding from the day. In your bedroom, avoid TV, bright computer screens, or anything else stimulating, such as your smart phone or tablet. Each of these activities teaches your body to be awake while in bed and the bright screens can make it more difficult to fall asleep. If a busy mind is making it hard to fall asleep, try writing down any thoughts that provoke worry or stress in the evening so that you can return to them in the morning. The key is to set up your environment for a comfortable and peaceful night of sleep.