I have worked with many clients who are looking to stop overeating at night. It’s a REALLY common challenge. It goes something like this: It’s 9 o’clock and you finally have some room to breathe. The kids are in bed, the dishes are done, and the only thing you want to do is lie comatose on the couch. But, wait, that would make you feel guilty for not doing something “productive” when there are so many things to do. So, you pace the kitchen looking for something to eat. Surely eating is an ok way to occupy your time. People need to eat, right? The first bite tastes pretty darn good but the looming desire for weight loss is dampening the enjoyment. Plus, you’re not hungry. Food doesn’t taste that great you’re not hungry after all.
It’s 9 o’clock and you finally have some room to breathe. The kids are in bed, the dishes are done, and the only thing you want to do is lie comatose on the couch. But, wait, that would make you feel guilty for not doing something “productive” when there are so many things to do. So, you pace the kitchen looking for something to eat. Surely eating is an ok way to occupy your time. People need to eat, right? The first bite tastes pretty darn good but the looming desire for weight loss is dampening the enjoyment. Plus, you’re not hungry. Food doesn’t taste that great you’re not hungry after all.
With the hundreds of clients that I have worked with over the years, this is one frustrating situation they often find themselves in. They wake in the morning with a fresh resolve for the day but then a stressful call or unexpected glitch shakes up thoughts of indulging in food when they get home. Food feels like a reward after a hard day. Some weeknights, it’s our best worn out attempt at self-care. At least we are trying.
HOW IT STARTS
I can vividly recall the first time I went on a diet at age 14. Like many other girls in the 90’s I was captivated with the idea of supermodels. I was dipping my toes into the modeling industry and was told by a photographer that I needed to lose 15 pounds. As I embarked on diet number one-of-many, I remember crying that “food was all I had”. I just couldn’t bear the idea of what I would “have to” give up. Food was elevated to such a high place in my life that losing it felt like amputating a limb.
Of course, that diet solved nothing for me and only strengthened my panicky reach for food. There is something in human nature that pleads for that very thing that is off-limits. Try to stop eating broccoli and see how much you want it. Through diets, eating became an even more attractive way to soothe my soul.
If you think about it, it really makes sense. By the end of the day, our willpower has seen its share of challenges. We may have been busy at work or with the kids and, with or without awareness, we skipped a meal. We may not have given ourselves the “luxury” of other ways to relax. Food is accessible, pretty cheap, and it’s always there.
Step one is recognizing that if you struggle with unwanted eating at night, it’s no accident. There is a purpose in seeking that “pleasure” that ultimately results in pain.
HOW TO CHANGE
MAKE SURE YOU ARE EATING PROPER MEALS
- Let’s hit up the practical tactics first. Do you skip meals or do you have a long stretch between lunch and dinner? If you are eating at night like a dog you forgot to feed in the morning (sorry Lexie) then it is imperative that you find a way to fuel yourself. If you arrive home overly hungry, consider having an apple before you leave the office or in the car on the way home. Top it off with a bottle of water and you’ll be in much better shape to wait for an enjoyable dinner.
CHANGE YOUR ROUTINE
- The next level of practicality is changing up your routine. Do you have a certain route that you drive home where you pick up fast food? Try mapping out another way. Even if it takes you a few minutes longer to get home, you are truly setting yourself up for success. Even if you aren’t keen on grabbing something to eat en route, the simple change of scenery can shake away some of the habitual response. You may also use your time in the car to pray or listen to an enriching podcast or book. This is a great time to stack the cards in your favor. You’re there anyway!
PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR HABITS.
- Speaking of habits. If your habit is to enter the front door and make a beeline to the refrigerator, consider a different route. Yes, your neighbors may think you have a screw loose for parking in the garage and then entering through the front door but they’ll also notice when your jeans are a size smaller. When you get home to do something relaxing and refreshing to truly treat yourself. Consider taking a shower or washing your face. Changing into something cozy can feel ultra comforting. Oh, and don’t put on the sloppy clothes you wore to paint the house last year, put on something that makes you feel fresh and cute.
THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT
Do you find yourself thinking about food during the day? Maybe romanticizing it, picturing eating as something oh-so-special and wonderful? Let’s be real- if you think about eating all day you are probably going to eat. And even if you don’t, I bet the struggle was much harder than it had to be. If we can alter our thoughts during the day, it is going to be a lot easier to modify our behaviors.
When I was going through my postpartum depression and anxiety I dreaded the nights my husband would be away. I could make myself completely sick imagining how it would feel when he wasn’t there. What was I going to do? How awful was I going to feel? I was convinced it was going to be horrible and I was right.
USE YOUR IMAGINATION FOR YOUR GOOD
While working with a counselor this topic came up. She lovingly pointed out that I was indeed creating my own reality. I had ruminated on these anxious thoughts so intensively that I was building up to something nearly inescapable. My mission was to start daydreaming about how wonderful these evenings could be. How nice it would be to only cook for one and to not have a sink full of dishes to wash. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have some quiet time to myself after the baby went down for the night? How enjoyable to watch or read anything I want to, have a cozy set-up on the couch, and to go to bed as early as I want to. Ooh, this was starting to get exciting!
What if you imaged your night in vivid color and emotion without the food? What could you do? How much fun or relaxation could you have? Remember that food can often slip in as an excuse to relax. You don’t need an excuse to relax. Especially one that is causing you frustration and keeping you from your goals. Take some time to really camp on this. Sure, it may feel uncomfortable to not eat but how incredibly awesome will it feel to have given yourself what you really need. Do if for your tomorrow self. She’ll be really glad you did.
You won’t always have to plan alternative activities but it can really help in the beginning. Just telling yourself “don’t eat” is not very helpful or nice. Give yourself something else to do that you can get excited about. Maybe there is a book or a magazine that you save for this time only. Is there a movie or series on Netflix you can save for 9-10pm? Remember, it won’t be forever.
I would often imagine my nighttime eating as a swarm of bees. I was running from that swarm all day long and when I went home and ate, it was like jumping in the water- I was finally free. Stinky thing is, I eventually had to come up for air and the build-up of stress and emotion was still there.
What if you could shake off some of the negative feelings throughout your day to that they didn’t avalanche you? Consider taking a minute or two a couple times a day to check in. What is going on underneath the hood? What are you feeling? How are your thoughts? Maybe you take a moment to list out your anxieties, go for a walk around the block, or just close your eyes and breathe. Stopping the mental mayhem and getting out of your head can make a big difference in the flow of your day.
I surely saved the best for last on this one. There is power in prayer. Whether it’s a daytime lifeline or nighttime reprieve, prayer is the tool that is always locked and loaded. Don’t let its simplify fool you… self-reliance is truly overrated.
TAKE HOME POINTS
If you find yourself overeating at night, assess your daytime nutrition and stress to see if either of these are compelling your choices. Sometimes the “solution” is simple, other times is a bit deeper. Enriching, enjoyable activities are the ONLY replacement for eating. If your only option besides eating is mopping the floor, you are probably going to eat. Fill your life with so much goodness and prayer that this unwanted habit is crowded out!
TRY THIS AT HOME
- Make a date with yourself with food as just a side note. Plan and execute and truly relaxing evening at home. Daydream about your night like you would a fancy dinner out or a vacation. Really make it great and attach as many positive emotions to the holiday as you can.