5 Reasons Why You’re Eating at Night

Night eating

“Why can’t I stop eating all night, I’m not even hungry!” is a phrase I hear often from my clients.

I understand on a personal level the allure of night-eating:  

It comforts at the end of a long day

It pairs perfectly with Netflix, that cozy couch and snuggling with your beau

It puts a period at the end of the day for you

It helps put you to sleep or get you back to sleep.

How to stop eating at night

But, since I’m also an Eating Psychology Coach & Mind/Body Nutrition Coach, specializing in, well, the psychology of eating, I also understand what this behavior is about, from both from a nutritional and psychological perspective as well.

What might actually be going on when my clients frequently share that they cannot stop snacking and/or binge eating at night?

First things first.  I want to make very clear that I never begrudge or judge anyone wanting to eat after dinner  Who am I do determine for anyone else what hunger cues they are getting? Instead, in my work I try to help my clients really communicate with their bodies and trust and honor the signals they get. No one else can do that for them. And it takes practice.  Look, sometimes we all get it wrong. No matter how well you know yourself, there are always times where understanding what ails you is elusive. Also, discerning whether you’re hungry or just tired doesn’t even enter into the equation, BECAUSE you are so tired. Maybe the need to snack after dinner is not the consequence of a nutritional void, but an emotional one. Perhaps, it’s the other way around. But, let’s consider why this might be happening and then dig into a few suggestions.

Why do I eat so much at night?

Here are 5 reasons you may be eating at night.

  1. You need Sleep

    You might actually be exhausted and are mixing sleep signals for hunger or thirst.  You know that something is up with you, but you just can’t put your finger on it. Oftentimes, it is easier just to eat (because you instinctively know it will help), then to have to stop and dig into anything deeper.  Food is grounding. Food comforts. Food can change your mood, settle a tummy, provide an activity, or be a surrogate for intimate relationships. It does all these things and there’s nothing shameful about it if you utilize food in this way.  In fact, it only becomes problematic if it’s causing you emotional angst or physical distress. Read more about the Hunger/Sleep connection here.

Suggestion: Make a snack that is high in protein and fat (i.e. yogurt, avocado, turkey slices).  This will fill you up quickly without creating a craving loop, and without making you too full. Make and drink some herbal tea as a regular sleep ritual as well if you enjoy it.

    2. It’s a deeply ingrained habit (i.e. food script)

Habits follow 3 predictable pathways.  First, there is a cue to the habit, (i.e. you crave a pint of ice cream when the football game is on). Second, is a routine, (when a commercial is on, you go upstairs for the pint and a spoon). Third, is the reward from the behavior, (pleasure from eating the ice cream).  In order to disrupt, circumvent or curtail the food script, you have to change the routine. So, for example, it’s 8:30 pm and you’ve just put the kids down, which may be your cue to head to the kitchen for some cereal. Changing the routine may be as simple as noticing that you’re following a food script and you need to do something completely different.  So, you consciously avoid the kitchen or take a bath, a walk, or start your bedtime routine instead.

3. You were too busy/distracted/full to eat a lot during the day

I know you’ve heard that breakfast is pretty important, and it is.  Not only because it helps give you fuel after fasting for the night but more importantly because of how it helps regulate your blood sugars and helps you get ahead of the cravings eight-ball during the day.  But I get it. You’re rushed to get out the door. You don’t want to set your alarm 10 minutes early, thank you very much, and sometimes you’re just not hungry in the morning. I am loathe to suggest to a client that they eat when they’re not hungry.  To do so would not be trusting and honoring his or her appetite and lifestyle. But, if you are struggling with late-night binges, one reason may be because of your skipped or irregular eating during the day, which makes you more aware of your hunger in the evening, when you finally have time to relax and decompress.  You also may inadvertently perpetuate morning-time fullness by eating late at night, thereby continuing the cycle.

Suggestion:  Don’t force yourself to eat breakfast or lunch, per se, as determined by the clock.  Instead, aim to tune in more closely to your hunger signals to get on top of them earlier to prevent ravenousness later.  Aim for small, nutrient-dense snacks, as opposed to feeling pressured into eating 3 full meals a day, if that is not your jam.  Honor your own unique cycles of eating but be willing to experiment, too. Maybe that means breakfast at 10am, lunch at 3pm and a super late supper.  

Suggestion #2 - Instead of a lunch “hour” see if you can take out 3-4, 10-minute timed and enforced breaks throughout your day to slowly eat a snack, go for a walk or meditate to help you deepen the mind/body connection, even at work.

4. Just because It’s there.

Brian Wansink, author of the book “Mindless Eating” has conducted countless studies on this phenomenon.  We often want to eat simply because it’s in front of us. One study he did involved 3-day old stale popcorn.  One half of the theater received a small bucket of 3-day old stale popcorn and the other half a large bucket of 3-day old stale popcorn.  After the movie and the results were tallied - he discovered that the people who received the LARGE bucket of 3-day old stale popcorn ate 30% more popcorn ……..even though it was stale! This is a powerful example of the “if its there you’ll eat it” concept. (Hint: distraction compounds the issue, like at a movie at a theater, or watching Netflix with the family.)

Suggestion: disrupt your food script.  If you always head to the kitchen before bed to clean a few things, get lunches ready for the kids, etc., and it leads to unwanted grazing or binging, try short-circuiting the cue, (going to the kitchen), and replacing it with a sleep or self-care ritual.

Suggestion #2 - Put the shelf-stable foods that are often right on the counter, ready to eat, out of sight and out of reach.

5. Decision Fatigue

Americans make over 200 food-related decisions per day, ranging from what to eat to when to eat and how many bites, and contemplating what is the “best” choice when confronted with options.  It’s exhausting and takes up major real estate in our brains. When we constantly make decisions both big and small throughout the day (not just about food, but everything), it can quickly strip us of energy and leave us reaching for the low-hanging fruit, (i.e. the easiest decisions), at the end of the day. So let’s say there are a lot of carby-concoctions, boxed foods and processed food laying around.   Couple this with physical tiredness, chronic stress (which raises your stress hormone cortisol, even at night), along with some distraction by way of children, TV shows, and to-do lists, and you have a formula for night-eating syndrome. Consequently, you can get a sense of the trifecta of night-eating woes.

By the way, I never deny myself an evening snack, even if it’s not related to physical hunger, when I crave it.  This is not about shaming mine or anyone’s appetite or judging one’s perception of hunger. It’s about getting to the root cause of night-eating, (if not about true hunger), and finding solutions that fulfill whatever it is that one truly needs at that time.

Do you struggle with night-eating?

To get even more free valuable content on this topic, I invite you to watch my jam-packed-with-value Masterclass on my exact 4 step framework for Empowered Eating and Peace with food.

4 steps to stop binge eating