Everything was perfect until you ate the entire block of chocolate; 1⁄2 a packet of biscuits as well as a another tub of yoghurt before going to bed feeling stuffed, sick and incredibly guilty. It is all too common to hear of individuals who maintain diet purity during the day, only to completely overdo things at night.
Unfortunately, an occasional evening binge can quickly become a particularly bad habit with long term psychological, health and weight consequences.
What is night eating?
Enjoying sweet foods after the evening meal can be a habit that forms in childhood or one that evolves over time. A small serve of pudding, biscuit with a cup of tea or some fruit or yoghurt can be a harmless and even nutritious addition to one’s day. These nightly food rituals are not what we are talking about. Rather, we are talking about the regular evening binges that completely derail one’s calorie intake, the nightly overeating that acts to soothe another emotion – loneliness, frustration or simply boredom that can quickly become a deeply entrenched habit.
When is night eating an issue?
Night eating is a significant issue when it is stopping you from reaching a particular goal, whether this goal is weight loss or just weight control; when it is consuming you to the extent that you cannot think of anything else or when it results in feelings of distress. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a biscuit or two, but when you demolish an entire packet for the sake of it, or when you cannot have any sweet food in the house for fear of binging then we have a problem.
How do you take control of night eating?
Gaining control over your night eating behaviour ultimately comes down to self- management and self-control – there is no quick fix. It is about acknowledging that you do have a problem and committing to working through it. No one is going to come to your home and help you stop eating.
No one is going to hold your hand at the supermarket and stop you physically from putting the chocolate and biscuits in the trolley. You are the only one who can take an active step to stopping this behaviour.
Step 1: Identify when you find yourself night eating
A good starting point is to identify when it happens. Is it when you are home alone? Or anytime you are watching TV? Is it when you are online or when you stay up extra late?
Identifying your riskiest time for night eating is the first step in taking control of it. Usually there is a pattern that has evolved over time a result of circumstances, your emotional wellbeing or psychological programming which has formed a link between a particular emotion in a particular environment and eating certain foods, for example watching TV home alone and always cracking open a block of chocolate
Step 2: Identify why it is happening
Perhaps the most important, yet most difficult step is identifying why you feel the need to binge at night. Generally speaking, behaviours that lead to overconsumption, whether it is alcohol, food or even drugs stem from an emotional need not being met.
As eating and food is one of easiest ways to bring us pleasure, eating something that tastes great, in large amounts can suppress uncomfortable emotions such as sadness, loneliness, anger and frustration that we would rather avoid. Identifying the underlying emotion fuelling your overeating is a significant step in learning to live and sit with these emotions rather than eating to distract from them, albeit for a brief time.
Step 3: Take control of your environment
Next, it is about self-management so you make it difficult to binge at night. If you are buying large portions of high calorie, high fat foods, stop. Throw away tempting sweet foods that you routinely keep at home. Do not keep spare change or money at home so you are not tempted to duck to the corner shop for a sugar hit.
Get busy and fill your diary so that you are not at home alone at risky times. Or watch less TV so it does not act as a trigger to eat. Clear action steps are crucial if you really want to make sustainable changes and will depend on the specific bad food habits you have developed that fuel your binge eating.
Step 4: Create your own food rules
Long term the ideal outcome is for you to have some clear rules that you find easy to stick to help to regulate your eating behaviours and work to actively prevent binge eating. This may mean you do have one small, portion and calorie controlled treat each night and that is it. Or that you do not eat after dinner, no exceptions.
Every one of us will need a different rule that suits the goals we have for our body and our health but when we have a rule we are comfortable with, it becomes easy to follow. It is when we deprive ourselves or play mind games because we are feeling unsatisfied that the games and night eating will continue.
Finally remember, the first night you try and break a habit, it is difficult. The second, not so easy either but once you get 34 days under your belt, you will be well on your way to owning and managing your night eating, for good.
The Carousel thanks Susie Burrell, founder of Shape Me for these tips