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's Your Experience with Last Supper Eating?

Some years ago, I went to see a naturopath about some health challenges I was having. As part of my treatment, she asked me to eliminate some foods from my diet, including gluten. Desperate to feel better, I agreed to do so.

I gave myself one last week to eat all my favorite gluten-containing foods.

During those last few days, I vividly recall feasting on artisanal sourdough loaves from my beloved local bread maker.

I also raided all my favorite bakeries loading up on blueberry scones, chocolate-chip cookies, veggie focaccia and chocolate-fudge cake.

The idea of future deprivation drove this intense phase of one-last-shot, now-or-never eating. I happily gorged on gluten while simultaneously grieving the end of our relationship.

Can you relate to this behavior?

It’s called Last Supper Eating.

Farewell-to-Food Feast
Before embarking on a new diet, plan or program, have you ever found yourself eating everything in sight, especially the foods that will soon be forbidden?

Or perhaps you planned one last elaborate meal featuring all the dishes that would be off limits starting tomorrow.

If you’re a yo-yo dieter, you’re likely very familiar with this pre-dieting ritual.

Like many of my clients, you may view this period of intense, frantic consumption—which is often followed by overwhelming guilt—as “proof” that you need to restrict your eating because you simply can’t control yourself around food.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The threat of food restriction can naturally trigger a farewell-to-food feast. It’s human nature to respond this way to deprivation.

Yet, it’s so easy to go into self-blame and shame.

How to End Last Supper Eating
Intuitive Eating puts an end to Last Supper Eating.

With Intuitive Eating, there is no deprivation. You have unconditional permission to eat whatever looks good, tastes good, and feels good in your body.

Instead of depriving yourself and eating according to a set of rules, you ask yourself: Do I like the taste of this food? Do I like how this food makes my body feel? Would I choose to eat this again or feel this way again?

What Works for Me
When I started reclaiming my Intuitive Eater, I asked myself if I actually liked the gluten-free foods I was eating.

The gluten-free bread, for example, was tolerable. It wasn’t delicious; it was simply an expensive vehicle for nut butter.

Since it wasn’t medically necessary for me to eliminate gluten (i.e., I don’t have celiac disease), I experimented with eating my beloved breads again, along with other gluten-containing foods—and my body felt just fine.

Although well intentioned, the diet the naturopath put me on didn’t improve my health condition. It just left me feeling deprived and unsatisfied, which always backfires.

As an Intuitive Eater, I now determine what works best for me by staying attuned to the messages my body sends.

If I skip a particular food because I don’t like how it tastes or feels in my body, I don’t view it as deprivation but rather as self-care and body kindness.

It feels really good to know I’ve had my last Last Supper.

My Relationship with Chocolate

I just wrapped up nearly a month of travel, most recently spending a week in Boulder deeply immersed in a brand-new Eating Psychology Teacher Training program with the Institute for the Psycholgy of Eating. I'm super jazzed to be acquiring additional knowledge and skills to share the powerful messages of eating psychology and mind-body nutrition with as many folks as possible.
 
On my flight home, I reflected on how much my relationship with food has changed over the years. Throughout the training, the event host kindly provided an array of healthy snacks like fruit, nuts, herbal teas and dark chocolate.
 
There was a point in my life when I would have been completely preoccupied by that chocolate. Every minute would have been fixated on how I could sneak some into my pocket to devour later when I was alone. My mentor, Marc David, calls this game "Hide & Eat."
 
I was ashamed to be seen eating something I felt I didn't deserve or couldn't have because my body was less than "perfect." I was tormented by chocolate, cookies, candy, cake--anything that I deemed as bad, fattening and off-limits.
 
Sound familiar?
 
Deprived to Virtuous
A few years later, after I started eating healthier, my relationship with this so called bad food changed again. For the most part, I didn't want it except for the occasional indulgence. However, when I didn't eat it, rather than feeling deprived as I once had, I felt virtuous, like a halo-wearing, in-control good girl who was better than everyone else.
 
Can you relate to this, too?
 
Neurotic to Neutral
These days, when presented with sweet treats, I eat them if I want them and don't if I don't. The experience is completely neutral. I am no longer consumed by that mental tug-of-war over whether or not I deserve to eat something. My choices no longer make me feel ashamed or superior.
 
I never ate that dark chocolate simply because when I checked in with my body, it didn't want it. It did, however, want--and thoroughly enjoy--the blueberry scones from a local bakery (which I ate without shame in front of my green-juice drinking peers).

Food As Our Teacher
As with all relationships, my relationship with food will continue to evolve. So will yours.
 
As with every life phase, every food and eating phase you experience is here to teach you something if you're willing to listen. Every chapter is a beautiful opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. Take a moment to reflect on how this might be true for you.