Do You Struggle with Nighttime Snacking?

Do you struggle with nighttime snacking?

If yes, you’re not alone. 

Many people find themselves rummaging through their fridge or cupboards an hour or two after dinner in search of something to nosh on.

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with eating at any time of day or night, it’s helpful to pause and check your intentions so you can ensure your needs are truly being met.

What Are You Really Hungry For?
We rarely snack at night because we’re physically hungry. If you are, by all means, eat whatever your body needs!

There are always exquisitely good reasons for eating. Although it may not seem like it, nighttime snacking is a way of taking care of ourselves. More often than not, we’re trying to nourish a psychological or emotional hunger.

Rather than chocolate, ice cream, cookies or chips (let’s face it, very few of us snack on an apple or carrots at 9 p.m.), here are some things we might really be hungry for:

  • Pleasure: Food, especially sweets, provides a quick hit of pleasure, something we crave when we don’t experience enough pleasure during our daytime hours (e.g., unfulfilling work).

  • Relief: Most of us move through our days pretty wound up. Eating offers a temporary respite from the stressors of our daily lives. Creamy foods, in particular, ease anxiety, which is one reason why ice cream is such a popular nighttime treat.

  • Grounding: Our busy lives can leave us feeling overextended and overwhelmed. The act of eating is very grounding; it's a way to center ourselves when we feel scattered.

  • Companionship: Although we’re more connected than ever before thanks to technology, many of us feel quite lonely. When loneliness creeps in at night, we can always rely on food to hang out with us and distract us from our uncomfortable feelings.

  • Energy: Because we operate in overdrive throughout our day, most of us are completely wiped out and depleted come nightfall. Food, especially sugar, is a fast and easy way to boost our energy.

  • Satisfaction: When we don’t get much satisfaction from our meals, perhaps because we’ve eliminated foods we enjoy, eat while multitasking, or rush through a meal, we will naturally seek more food later in an attempt to satisfy our taste buds.  

  • Me Time: Whether at work or home, many of us spend our days taking care of other people’s needs. Enjoying a nighttime snack, once everyone else is tucked in or logged off, is something special we do just for ourselves.

What Will Truly Meet Your Needs?
If you want to bring more mindfulness to your late-night noshing habits, understanding why you do what you do is the first step.

With compassion and curiosity, ask yourself:

What need am I trying to meet with this food?

Will this food truly meet this need?

If not, how might I better fulfill this need?

For example, say you reach for chocolate throughout the night because you’re pleasure deficient. How can you bring more pleasure into your life? Is it as small as reading a good book or taking a post-dinner walk with a pal or as big as changing careers? 

Or, perhaps you dive into a bag of chips because you feel overtaxed and burned out. How can you simplify your life? Can you hire a housecleaner, set work boundaries like not checking email after 6 p.m., or say “no” to others and opportunities more often? (Remember, saying “no” often means saying “yes” to yourself.)

Maybe you’ve identified that you’re seeking an energy boost, something to alleviate your depleted state. If this is the case, you’ll likely benefit more from hitting the hay than raiding the cookie jar.

Deprivation Backlash
If your day includes depriving yourself of what you really want to eat (e.g., ordering a light salad instead of a hearty sandwich) and/or restricting the amount and type of food you eat (e.g., counting calories, cutting carbs), your urge to snack all night is not due to a lack of willpower or discipline.

It’s a compensatory reaction; your body’s natural response to physical and psychological deprivation. The more you ignore your body’s needs and desires, the bigger the backlash and binge.

When you allow yourself to eat what and however much you want throughout your day, you’ll likely feel less compelled to snack the night away.

Please Keep in Mind…
It’s perfectly okay to eat when you’re not hungry, including for emotional reasons. Sometimes, a bowl of ice cream is exactly what you need.

What Role Does the Diet Mentality Play in Your Eating?

Did you know that the first principle of Intuitive Eating is “Reject the Diet Mentality”?

This step is critical because having a dieter’s mindset disconnects you from your body's wisdom, including your own internal cues that tell you what, when, and how much to eat.

When you operate with a diet mentality, you eat according to external sources and rules (e.g., calories, points, macros, good/bad foods, fixed schedule, etc.) rather than honoring your body’s needs, desires and preferences.

Restricting the timing, amount, and type of food you eat is not intuitive, sustainable, flexible, pleasurable or empowering.

Ultimately, having a diet mentality erodes your ability to trust your body and your instincts, and negatively impacts your physical and psychological wellbeing.

Diet vs. Non-Diet Mentality
Even if you aren’t on an official diet or have never dieted, your eating may still be influenced by the diet mentality considering our pervasive, insidious diet culture. It’s the voice in your head that sounds like this:

Diet Mentality

In contrast, the non-diet mentality—that is, the Intuitive Eater voice—sounds like this:

Non-Diet Mentality

  • Am I hungry?

  • What sounds yummy and nourishing?

  • Do I want this particular food?

  • Will I feel deprived if I don’t eat it?

  • Will this food satisfy and sustain me?

  • Is this tasty? Does it hit the spot?

  • I trust my body to tell me what it needs.

  • I listen to and honor my hunger and cravings.

  • I deserve to enjoy eating without guilt.

  • I can have anything. What do I want?

  • Food is a source of energy, pleasure and nourishment.

Where do you stand with the diet mentality?

This Feels Scary!
Rejecting the diet mentality can feel pretty scary, especially if you’ve been trapped in this mindset for a long time. You may fear that if you let it go, you’ll lose control, eat “badly,” never stop eating, and completely go to pot.

These fears are totally understandable.

In time, however, they will start to fade as you realize that it's the diet mindset—the deprivation, restriction, micro-management, hyper-vigilance, moralism—that prevents you from having a peaceful, intuitive relationship with food and your body.

Your fears will further subside as you reconnect with your inner signals—your hunger, fullness, desires and satisfaction—and rediscover that your body is the only guide you need when it comes to nourishing yourself.

Source: Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program the Works, E. Tribole & E. Resch

Do You Put on a False Food Face?

Do you put on a false food face? It looks something like this:

The Healthy Eater
Leslie works hard to preserve her healthy eater image. At parties, she’s on her best behavior and only snacks on what she considers to be "good" foods, like crudité, hummus, shrimp cocktail, and the grapes decorating the cheese platter.

Once she leaves, however, she often stops and buys a big bag of chips or picks up a pizza, which she scarfs down in the privacy of her own home.

The Light Eater
When dining out with her girlfriends, Crystal always orders something light, like a garden salad or baked fish, and declines dessert, even when she’d much rather have a plate of pasta and slice of cheesecake.

When she gets back to her apartment, she heads right to the freezer, grabs a pint of ice cream, and quickly eats spoonful after spoonful while standing in the dark.

The Restrained Eater
Trained to be a restrained eater by her mother, a chronic dieter, Polly always asks the waiter to package up half her entrée in a to-go box before she eats a bite. Her family and friends frequently comment on how “good” she is.

More often than not, Polly leaves the table feeling hungry and unsatisfied. The minute she walks in her front door, she dives into her leftovers then goes hunting for more food.

Ultimately, she eats far more than she would have if she had just eaten what she wanted and needed at the restaurant.

Can you relate to any of these stories?

Putting on a False Food Face
In Intuitive Eating, this is called putting on a false food face—eating only what’s considered “proper” when dining with other people.

There are many reasons why you might put on a false food face, such as:

  • You’re worried about other people negatively judging your choices

  • You don’t want to tarnish your reputation as a “healthy” or “clean” eater

  • You feel you don’t deserve to eat certain foods (especially in public) due to your weight

  • You’re afraid of receiving disapproving looks or comments from external food police, such as “Are you sure you should be eating that?” or “Do you really need another slice?”

  • You don’t want to stand out from your diet-conscious dining companions by ordering something “bad” or “unhealthy” or "fattening" or "carb-y"

  • You’re ashamed of publicly breaking your food rules, which you take a lot of pride in adhering to (e.g., I don’t eat gluten; I never eat after 7 p.m.; I’ve sworn off sugar and carbs)

  • You like the ego boost you feel when you demonstrate self-restraint, especially when others compliment you on your "virtuous" behavior

Always Backfires
While putting on a false food face is completely understandable given our diet-obsessed, weight-focused and wellness-infatuated culture, it typically backfires.

When you deprive yourself of the foods you really want, don’t get pleasure and satisfaction from your meal, and/or don’t eat enough, the natural response is intense cravings, overeating and binge eating.

It has nothing to do with a lack of willpower or self-control. It’s simply human nature.

Most likely, your eating backlash leads to feelings of guilt, disappointment, despair and shame. As a result, you may feel the need to compensate for your food “sins” and pull the reins in tighter, which only fuels the endless cycle of restrict-binge-repent-repeat.

Self-Compassion is Key
If you have a history of putting on a false food face, I urge you to be compassionate with yourself.

Every action has a positive intention. It's possible your false food face may be a form of self-protection, a way to keep yourself safe.

Or maybe it's a way to maintain your identity or feel a sense of control. Perhaps your desire is to feel accepted, to fit in and belong.

Regardless of your intentions, as you likely know, playing this role is exhausting! 

It sucks all the joy, pleasure and fun out of eating. It distracts you from being fully engaged with the present moment. And, it keeps you stuck in a vicious cycle.

Fortunately, there is a better way: Intuitive Eating.

Internal Cues Vs. External Rules
With Intuitive Eating, your food decisions are based on internal cues (e.g., hunger, fullness, satisfaction) and personal preferences versus external rules, influence or expectations.

You listen to, trust and honor your own body wisdom, instincts and desires. 

As a result, you no longer feel compelled to put on a false food face. You eat for you—and only you.