The majority of Americans have a snack after dinner, around 8:00 or 8:30pm on average. An evening snack can be a good way to spread out one’s calories across more settings, and also to avoid hunger at bedtime.
But for many people, late-night eating has more costs than benefits. Eating closer to bedtime can make it harder to lose weight, especially if we’re reaching for highly processed food that we’re prone to overeat, like ice cream or potato chips. It can also aggravate GERD and other reflux-related conditions.
If you’ve struggled to curtail your late-night eating, you know how hard it can be to resist. Why is it such a struggle – especially after what is usually our biggest meal of the day? And how can we better control the urge?
Several factors can contribute to eating after dinner. For people who have been working hard all day to make good food choices, their resistance may be worn down. Let’s have an illustration: Ellen avoided the free bagels at work this morning, resisted at lunch when her co-workers tried to get her to split a big dessert with them, and skipped the post-work happy hour where she knew she would overindulge. That night when she keeps seeing images of burgers, ice cream, and cookies on the TV, her will power has been exhausted and she grabs the box of cookies from the cabinet.
The evening might also be a time when emotional issues surface, once the busyness of the day is behind us and we’re alone with our thoughts. Snacking could be a response to feeling sad, lonely, stressed out, or just plain bored. The dopamine response from eating can soothe uncomfortable emotions.
Perhaps the biggest driver of night-time eating is our internal clock. Just as we have a 24-hour (circadian) sleep-wake cycle, we also have a regular daily cycle of hunger – and it peaks on average around 8:00pm. No wonder the average time for an evening snack is 8:20pm, a mere two hours after dinner!
Our bodies are preparing for the longest interval without eating (not uncommonly 12 hours or more) and so need to stock up on calories for the night ahead. There also would have been an advantage to eating more at night when food was scarce, since those calories are stored more efficiently. Unfortunately that advantage now works against us as we store the food in excess fat around our middles.
It’s worth noting that the low point in our daily hunger is in the morning, which probably accounts for why many people eat a very small breakfast or skip it altogether. Otherwise it’s hard to understand why hunger doesn’t wake us up in the morning, given how long we’ve gone without eating.
How can I reduce my after-dinner eating?
Given the circadian drive, the low reserve of self-control, and possible emotional factors, no wonder it’s hard to resist the pull of certain foods after dinner. Fortunately there are several tools that can assist us, drawn from the Think Act Be framework:
1. Minimise the availability of easy-to-binge snack foods
If it’s not in the house, you’re much less likely to eat it. “I’ll just have to use will power” is a perfect setup for giving in when the time comes. Harness motivation when it’s high to set yourself up for success when motivation is low. That might mean throwing away your stash now, or donating it to the common area at work, and then not buying more.
2. Plan a more healthful alternative and have it already made
It’s hard to just take something away without replacing it. Is there a more healthful alternative you could have on hand? It might even be something very small like a bite of good chocolate or a mint. Practise accepting that it’s not going to give you the same feeling as eating half a box of cookies or a pint of ice cream. Make sure it’s prepared in advance so there’s no additional obstacle to the better option.
3. Mix up your routine
Part of habitual late night eating is just that, a habit. If you mix up your routine, it can help nudge you out of a rut. For example, if you’re accustomed to grabbing the chips and dips on your way to the couch to watch TV, you could plan instead to read a book you like with a cup of tea. For some people, simply brushing and flossing their teeth as soon as they’re done with dinner can be adequate incentive to discourage eating again, since it would mean having to redo the teeth routine. It may take careful thought and planning to identify a strategy that works for you.
4. Examine the thoughts you’re telling yourself
Most of us have beliefs about cravings that aren’t helpful or true. For example, we might be telling ourselves: ‘I can’t be happy if I don’t eat that food.’ We might have ‘permission-giving’ thoughts like: ‘I ate pretty well today – I deserve to indulge myself tonight.’ Other examples include:
- This craving will never go away unless I satisfy it.
- Resisting this urge will be so uncomfortable I won’t be able to stand it.
- I’m just going to give in later so I might as well give in now – at least this way I’m not eating as late.
- It’s only one night; tomorrow I’ll be more disciplined.
Practise noticing the thoughts that contribute to cravings. They might be hard to hear at first – more impressions than explicit statements. After we’ve identified our beliefs we can examine whether we might be misleading ourselves.
5. Sit with the cravings
When we reflexively try to resolve a state of tension, we don’t have a chance to understand what it’s really about. We can pause before satisfying our cravings for foods to explore the cravings: Feel them. Welcome them. Breathe with them. They won’t hurt you. Are they trying to tell you something? Maybe there’s an emotion behind them that we’re trying to ignore. Maybe we’re lonely. Maybe we need to go to bed earlier. The only way to know what’s on the other side of the cravings is to let ourselves experience them. In the process we’ll probably discover we can tolerate them better than we thought.
It’s unlikely that we’ll completely eliminate problematic late-night eating, but any technique that shifts the odds in our favour is a good thing.
Dr Seth Gillihan is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.