What is it about the evenings that make us want to dive head first into a bucket of ice cream? Why don’t we have these same urges to overindulge first thing in the morning? You never really hear about people going nuts over omelettes and oatmeal.
And why do we continue doing dumb things to ourselves that aren’t healthy or productive—even when we know they’re preventing us from achieving our goal?
People generally just chalk it up to having a lack of willpower. But willpower doesn’t necessarily work that way.
In the words of behavioral change writer, James Clear, “When we think of willpower, it helps to visualize it similar to a muscle that gets fatigued over a period of time through repetitive use. Every time you make a decision, it’s like doing another rep in the gym. And similar to how our muscles get tuckered out as the workout progresses, the strength of your willpower diminishes as you continue to make choices throughout the day.”
This is what the scientific nerds (I’m looking at you Alan Aragon) refer to as decision fatigue.
When was the last time you engaged in a heated argument with your significant other? Did it reach a point where you were willing to agree to anything they said just to bring the disagreement to an end?
That would definitely make sense. When your brain power begins to fade and you become tired of making decisions, it’s easier to become passive than continue on with a meaningless debate.
Decision fatigue happens in our every day lives. If you’ve had a stressful day with the kids, then you’re far more likely to feel drained and emotionally spent. You might want to hit the gym and have a healthy meal afterwards, but your brain will be more inclined to take the easy route: stay at home with your Snuggie and order a 16” pizza.
That’s decision fatigue.
Curb Your Cravings
1. WHY are you eating?
In order to change the habit of nighttime eating, we first need to identify the root of the issue.
Overeating in the evening hours may be the result of feeling deprived from the foods you ate earlier that day. Maybe you didn’t eat enough or weren’t satisfied with your stale Cheerios and that left you feeling ravenous at night. Or, perhaps, you ate because you were bored or have a nightly ritual of drinking a glass of wine while watching The Walking Dead.
Identifying your “why” will enable you to make better decisions through mental awareness moving forward.
2. Identify your triggers
In addition to identifying the cause of your overeating, you will likely find it useful to look for a certain behavior pattern that triggered your desire to eat in the first place.
Everyone eats for different reasons. If you’re not hungry, but eating to soothe an emotional need, you’re likely substituting food as an escape mechanism to avoid dealing with a conflict going on inside you.
What you need in that moment isn’t food. It’s self-care in the form of having your emotional needs met.
A tool you can use to combat this symptom is to keep a “food and mood” journal. When you catch yourself reaching for food out of stress, loneliness, boredom, etc. track your behavior and monitor your patterns. This feedback will provide you with the information needed to address the early signs of self-sabotaging behaviors.
3. Use a routine
If you’re overeating in the evenings because you aren’t eating enough at breakfast and lunch, then getting yourself into a routine of eating bigger meals earlier in the day can be a big help.
Creating a structured fail-proof environment will help you spread your meals evenly so you’re not white-knuckling your way through evening cravings.
Having a regular sleep schedule is also critical when it comes to managing your food intake and weight gain. Lack of sleep or irregular sleeping patterns have long been associated with higher calorie diets and poor quality food choices.
Having set times to eat and sleep can help you break unhealthy habits. If you’re keeping your blood sugar level throughout the day and able to be in bed by a reasonable hour, you won’t find yourself digging into the back corner of the fridge looking for a midnight snack.
4. Plan your meals
If you’re struggling to stick to a routine, you may want to consider planning your meals ahead of time.
Ensuring that you always have a supply of healthy foods on-hand can prevent you from making a poor nutritional choice in a high stress moment or unpredictable circumstance. When you’re prepared and have a plan in place, this has the ability to reduce anxiety and alleviate your need to impulsively eat to satisfy an emotional need or craving.
5. Talk it out
This is where I think having a professional assist you in this arena can be an invaluable asset.
If you’re a chronic nighttime eater or have regular binge eating episodes, you should consider seeking the support and help of a professional who can intelligently guide you.
It’s important that you understand that there is nothing inherently wrong with you. Having an emotional support system in place can help you identify your triggers, cope with the negative emotions, and educate you on healthier eating patterns to help curb the excessive nighttime eating.
6. Dump the Stress
The two most common reasons people tend to eat when they’re not hungry is due to anxiety or stress.
This will look a little bit different for everyone. If you notice you’re feeling anxious or stressed and routinely reaching for the bag of cookies to reduce your emotional discomfort, try to find another way to relax and unwind.
Maybe it’s reading a book, going for a walk outdoors, or playing an instrument. Research has shown that relaxing techniques can help manage a disordered relationship with food like those often found in nighttime or binge eating.
Relaxation can be anything from yoga, strength training to hot baths. Find what works best for you and make it a priority to incorporate it in to your life. Every day.
7. Eat When You’re Hungry But Not Too Hungry
Eating routine meals based on hunger signals can help keep your sugar levels stable. It can also prevent feelings of ravenous hunger, tiredness, irritability or a perceived lack of food, which can eventually lead to a binge.
When you allow yourself to become overly hungry, you’re more inclined to make poor food choices. Studies have shown that those with regular meal times (3 or more times per day), have an easier time controlling their appetite and maintaining a healthy weight.
In the end, only you know what is best for your body. And the best eating frequency for controlling hunger and the amount of food consumed is likely to vary from person to person, so pay attention to your individual cues.
Are you eating because you’re bored? Tired? Stressed? Practice eating only when you’re hungry.
8. Protein in Every Meal
It’s been well documented by the scientific community that different foods have different effects on your appetite.
If you’re eating due to hunger, be sure to include protein in every meal. This will help to keep our appetite in check. It will also help you feel more satiated throughout the day and stop you from obsessing over food and help prevent snacking at night.
9. End the Obsession
If you are consumed with thoughts of food because you haven’t created meaning in other areas of your life, look to find a hobby or something you can enjoy in those evening hours.
Keep your mind occupied with reading, puzzles, a softball league, the movies, or hanging out with friends.
Finding a new area of interest or planning activities can fill an emotional void of loneliness or boredom and prevent you from mindlessly eating.
The Bottom Line
Willpower isn’t something you have or something you lack. It ebbs and flows. And while it’s important to take advantage of your willpower when it’s available, it is possible to make a few changes to your day and nighttime eating routine so that you can make continued progress on the goals that are important to you.
And if you ever need help defining a clear path for YOUR body to accommodate YOUR individual preferences and lifestyle, then don’t be afraid to hit me up and start a chat. I know how frustrating the ugly cycle of nighttime eating can be. Hell, I did it for years myself.
But the good news?
You don’t have to stay stuck. It’s never too late to start over. You can do better.