How to Stop Overeating at Night

Nighttime overeating isn't as simple as defining a cut-off time and stopping.

Posted Jun 09, 2019

Fotolia - purchased rights.
Is there a nighttime overeating monster inside you?
Source: Fotolia - purchased rights.

Today I'd like to begin a series on nighttime overeating. The conclusions and advice in this section are derived from three sources: (1) Reader surveys among people who've successfully overcome and/or made significant progress with nighttime overeating; (2) what most successful clients have done to fix the problem; and (3) several pertinent studies and reviews in the scientific literature.

We'll start with nutrition. If you don’t adequately nourish your body during the day, it will cry out for more at night. After all, it needs resources to accomplish the critical nighttime tasks of rest and regeneration while you sleep. No matter how strong your intellectual resolve may be, without stellar nutrition, your brain will want to force you to be less discriminating with food at night, because on some level, it perceives there to be a physical emergency.

This is probably why the most successful clients and readers focused heavily on nutrition during the day. They’ve observed that the evening voice—which says, "Eat more," "You deserve it; it was a very hard day," or "We can start again tomorrow"—is much louder when they are undernourished.

It's also worth noting that almost all of my clients say they have good nutrition, but when I carefully examine the factors in this article with them, I almost always find deficiencies. So there's no shame in re-examining your own nutrition, perhaps especially if you’re sure you’re doing it right! Take solace in every deficiency you find, because each is an opportunity for improvement to help overcome your nighttime eating.

What, specifically, did the people who'd overcome and/or made significant progress with nighttime overeating emphasize in their nutrition? It's not rocket science or terribly surprising, but it is terribly important! (Please note: I'm not a nutritionist, dietitian, and/or medical doctor, so the following is for illustration only. You are responsible for checking with a physician before making any dietary changes.)

  • Leafy Green Vegetables: Many of my most successful clients emphasize leafy green vegetables throughout the day.
  • Eliminate or Regulate Processed Foods: Most have either carefully regulated sugar, flour, and other highly processed foods in their diet or eliminated them completely. Very few, if any,  nighttime successes were freely eating sugar, flour, and other highly processed and/or industrially concentrated foods without boundaries.
  • Protein: Many clients who'd successfully overcome nighttime overeating were including more protein with dinner to prevent hunger during the night. 
  • Time of Day: There were many former nighttime overeaters who said a hearty breakfast, a medium lunch, and a lighter but very nutritious dinner made it much easier to stop at their designated cut-off time. The “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper” philosophy may be a good way to fight our natural tendency to crave more sweet, starchy, and salty foods in the evening. These evolutionary cravings may have served us well during a time when industrially concentrated foods were not an option—there were no potato chips, pizza, chocolate, etc., in the tropics 100,000 years ago!—but in modern times, these urges lead us astray. Here’s a quick review of the more pertinent research that supports this:
    • Morning Versus Evening Eating Types: A study conducted by Sato-Mite et al. suggests dividing the population into “morning-types” and “evening-types” (Harb et al., 2012). The result of further research reviews by these authors was that “evening-types tend to skip breakfast more,” and morning-types who wake up earlier are much more able to have discipline in diet control (Harb et al., 2012).
    • Circadian Rhythm Causes Increased Appetite in the Evening: Researchers at Harvard University published a study in the journal Obesity which further explains the role our biology has on our late-night overeating habits. They found that “an internal circadian rhythm causes increased appetite in the evening” (OHSU News, 2013). They speculate that overeating at later hours may have previously served our ancestors to “store energy to survive longer in times of food scarcity,” but that in today’s age, it has promoted unhealthy eating habits (OHSU News, 2013).
    • Must Fight the Natural Tendency to Eat More at Night: A similar study discussed in the journal Obesity suggests that our body’s internal clock increases hunger and cravings for sweet, starchy, and salty foods in the evenings. Subjects in this study felt “least hungry in the morning,” at about 8 a.m., and “most hungry” at around 8 p.m. The authors suggest our appetite's internal circadian regulation leaves us with a “natural tendency to skip breakfast in favor of larger meals in the evening,” which is an eating routine that is ever more common in modern times (OHSU News, 2013). Skipping breakfast and overeating late at night starts a vicious habit, which can easily become a full-blown eating disorder, such as NES.
    • Don't Skip Breakfast: A study published in the journal Nutrition (Karatzi et al., 2017) found that “late-night overeating is associated with fewer calories consumed at breakfast and with breakfast skipping.” They observed that a cycle developed, which included skipping breakfast, overeating at dinner, and snacking late at night, which created a stubborn trend in individuals’ eating schedules. When an individual skips breakfast, they mitigate the low-calorie intake through other meals during their day, which, in turn, can disrupt their mealtimes and motivate them to have an earlier lunch and dinner. While the individual may not be concerned about their daytime mealtimes, having an earlier dinner can create the opportunity (and urge) for a second dinner and/or a late-night, high-calorie, and/or high-volume snack. Then, the nighttime overeating causes their “stomach to expand […] to adjust to the large amount of food,” and more hydrochloric acid is required to break it down, which can make them feel bloated and disinterested in eating in the morning. Thus, the cycle is reset and perpetuated, and in the long term can cause heartburn, insomnia, and obesity. Unfortunately, the “slowed digestive process means the food they eat will remain in the stomach for a longer period of time and be more likely to turn into fat” (Blackburn, 2018).
    • Eat a Later Dinner: Many of our most successful clients had also decided to move their dinner to later in the evening. They reasoned that they’d become ravenous late at night, because they were attempting to fast for too long between dinner and breakfast. A later dinner and an earlier breakfast bridged that gap and made it easier to keep the nighttime eating monster in its cage. Lunch was also moved a little later in the day to make it easier to wait. The resulting new pattern is an early breakfast, mid-afternoon lunch, and a later dinner. But please note dinner should not be moved so late that you’ll have trouble wanting to eat breakfast in the morning, because that's a strong contributor to the nighttime eating problem. Although you can most definitely customize this for your individual needs, a typical success pattern might include a substantial breakfast no later than 8 a.m., a satisfying and filling lunch around 1:30 or 2:00 p.m., and highly nutritious but somewhat less substantial dinner at 7 or 7:30 p.m.
  • Emphasize Satisfying Food During the Day: Finally, satisfaction with food during the day seems to help dramatically curb nighttime overeating in most clients. I first encountered this idea in a research review by author Jennifer Hand in Healthline. Hand suggests that when our meals during the day are not satisfying, we are much more likely to overeat late at night (2018). Nighttime overeating may also be “the result of overly restricted daytime food intake, leading to ravenous hunger at night” (West, 2016). When you are overly cautious of the type and amount of food that you consume throughout the day, you may feel that you are foregoing food satisfaction entirely. This is not a good idea. When what you eat during the day is genuinely satisfying, the idea of overeating after dinner is simply less appealing.
  • Morning Versus Evening Eating Types: A study conducted by Sato-Mite et al. suggests dividing the population into “morning-types” and “evening-types” (Harb et al., 2012). The result of further research reviews by these authors was that “evening-types tend to skip breakfast more,” and morning-types who wake up earlier are much more able to have discipline in diet control (Harb et al., 2012).
  • Circadian Rhythm Causes Increased Appetite in the Evening: Researchers at Harvard University published a study in the journal Obesity which further explains the role our biology has on our late-night overeating habits. They found that “an internal circadian rhythm causes increased appetite in the evening” (OHSU News, 2013). They speculate that overeating at later hours may have previously served our ancestors to “store energy to survive longer in times of food scarcity,” but that in today’s age, it has promoted unhealthy eating habits (OHSU News, 2013).
  • Must Fight the Natural Tendency to Eat More at Night: A similar study discussed in the journal Obesity suggests that our body’s internal clock increases hunger and cravings for sweet, starchy, and salty foods in the evenings. Subjects in this study felt “least hungry in the morning,” at about 8 a.m., and “most hungry” at around 8 p.m. The authors suggest our appetite's internal circadian regulation leaves us with a “natural tendency to skip breakfast in favor of larger meals in the evening,” which is an eating routine that is ever more common in modern times (OHSU News, 2013). Skipping breakfast and overeating late at night starts a vicious habit, which can easily become a full-blown eating disorder, such as NES.
  • Don't Skip Breakfast: A study published in the journal Nutrition (Karatzi et al., 2017) found that “late-night overeating is associated with fewer calories consumed at breakfast and with breakfast skipping.” They observed that a cycle developed, which included skipping breakfast, overeating at dinner, and snacking late at night, which created a stubborn trend in individuals’ eating schedules. When an individual skips breakfast, they mitigate the low-calorie intake through other meals during their day, which, in turn, can disrupt their mealtimes and motivate them to have an earlier lunch and dinner. While the individual may not be concerned about their daytime mealtimes, having an earlier dinner can create the opportunity (and urge) for a second dinner and/or a late-night, high-calorie, and/or high-volume snack. Then, the nighttime overeating causes their “stomach to expand […] to adjust to the large amount of food,” and more hydrochloric acid is required to break it down, which can make them feel bloated and disinterested in eating in the morning. Thus, the cycle is reset and perpetuated, and in the long term can cause heartburn, insomnia, and obesity. Unfortunately, the “slowed digestive process means the food they eat will remain in the stomach for a longer period of time and be more likely to turn into fat” (Blackburn, 2018).
  • Eat a Later Dinner: Many of our most successful clients had also decided to move their dinner to later in the evening. They reasoned that they’d become ravenous late at night, because they were attempting to fast for too long between dinner and breakfast. A later dinner and an earlier breakfast bridged that gap and made it easier to keep the nighttime eating monster in its cage. Lunch was also moved a little later in the day to make it easier to wait. The resulting new pattern is an early breakfast, mid-afternoon lunch, and a later dinner. But please note dinner should not be moved so late that you’ll have trouble wanting to eat breakfast in the morning, because that's a strong contributor to the nighttime eating problem. Although you can most definitely customize this for your individual needs, a typical success pattern might include a substantial breakfast no later than 8 a.m., a satisfying and filling lunch around 1:30 or 2:00 p.m., and highly nutritious but somewhat less substantial dinner at 7 or 7:30 p.m.

The solution is to find things you can add to your diet to enhance satisfaction without interfering with your health and fitness goals. Depending upon your dietary philosophy and/or medical restrictions, these can often include spices, whole fruit, and/or perhaps small amounts of dark chocolate when you want something sweet (if you’re not someone like me who can’t have chocolate at all). Things which give a satisfying “crunch” during the day, like chopped celery on your salad, carrots, cabbage, etc., can also help tremendously. We are meant to bite and chew, and the stress of most of our daily work lives adds to this urge. If we don't discharge it during the day, then we have more of a desire to do so in the evening. You might also consider adding dehydrated vegetables as flavor enhancers. For example, a few sundried tomatoes (without oil) in your salad can make all the difference in satisfaction and satiation. They also mix very well in soups. And remember, adding a few planned extra calories to your dinner meal is much better than a large amount of spontaneous, unplanned snacking.

Next week we'll talk about the surprising second of six pillars which successful clients and readers use to overcome nighttime overeating. In the meantime, if you'd like more advice and practical tips for overcoming overeating, please see this related article.

References

Blackburn, K. B. (2018, February). What happens when you overeat? Retrieved from https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/What-happens-when-you-overeat.h23Z1592202.html

Harb, A., Levandovski, R., Oliveira, C., Caumo, W., Allison, K. C., Stunkard, A., & Hidalgo, M. P. (2012). Night eating patterns and chronotypes: A correlation with binge eating behaviors. Psychiatry Research,200(2-3), 489-493. doi:10.1016/j.psychres. 2012.07.004

Hand, J. (n.d.). Binge Eating at Night? Here’s How To Stop [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/the-3-things-you-need-to-do-to-stop-overeating-at-night

OHSU News. (2013, April 29). Study explains what triggers those late-night snack cravings. Retrieved from https://news.ohsu.edu/2013/04/29/study-explains-what-triggers-those-late-night-snack-cravings

Sass, C. (2017, January 31). The Surprising Reason You Snack at Night (and How to Stop It). Retrieved from https://www.health.com/obesity/the-surprising-reason-you-snack-at-night-and-how-to-stop-it

West, H. (2016, June 21). 10 Clever Ways to Stop Eating Late at Night. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-ways-to-stop-eating-late-at-night