Late Night Cravings: Keeping the Food Vampire in Its Coffin!

Are you good all day, but constantly blow your diet at night? Try this.

Posted Oct 26, 2019

The impulse to overeat in the evening feels irresistible to more than one hundred million people nationwide. I know this because I found it to be so much of a problem with clients in my own practice that I commissioned my own study with a representative sample of the United States population. Of the 312 people who completed the survey, we found that 57.5 percent reported eating more than they planned to at night.

The fact that the majority of Americans overeat at night was not, however, the most disturbing finding. Unfortunately, we also found nighttime overeaters:

  • Had more than twice as much weight to lose: 230 percent more than those who don’t eat more than they planned to in the evening, to be exact
  • Were more than three times as likely to need to lose at least 50 pounds (348 percent more)
  • Were less than half as likely to be at their ideal weight (47.2 percent as likely)

It's a significant problem, and in my own experience, many (if not most) people who struggle feel panicked about it. They seem to have developed the belief there’s something different about them, which other people are incapable of understanding. Perhaps it's something genetic, they reason. Or perhaps they’ve dug such a deep behavioral groove in their nighttime eating brain that there’s just no going back.

Unfortunately, this represents a source of significant suffering for most people. It’s demoralizing, can seriously impact health, and often creates perpetual insecurity about the possibility of permanent weight loss. People become accustomed to being good all day and then blowing their diets in the evening, no matter how hard they try. They can't seem to beat that "little voice" in their heads that screams, "You must eat now!" at night.

If this describes you even a little, the suggestions in this article may be just what you need.

Let's begin with an unexpected metaphor: vampires!  

In virtually every vampire movie, there’s a clear distinction between daylight and dark. The audience knows when they’re watching the part of the movie where the characters are safe vs. the part where they're in serious peril. The tension is palpable after the sun goes down: The music changes, the movie lighting is different, and the main characters adopt a very different, protective attitude. They allocate their mental and physical energies much differently than they did during daylight.

Just like the heroes and heroines in these movies, I find clients and readers who’ve successfully overcome nighttime overeating know precisely when their "vampire" is out for the hunt vs. sleeping it off in its coffin. They have clear cut-off times, which indicate when eating for the day is over.  

After all, if you don’t know when nighttime is, how can you possibly discern when you're doing it? Like my grandfather used to say, "If you don't know what you're aiming for, you'll probably hit something else!" 

The actual hour which demarcates "food sundown" for my most successful clients varies greatly and does not necessarily correspond with when the sun actually goes down in the real world. Some clients live in the far north, where sundown vacillates wildly at different times of the year. It could be as late as 11 p.m. in the summer, or as early as 2 p.m. in the winter. Literally using darkness to signal the end of the day’s eating just isn’t practical in certain latitudes of the modern world.

Therefore, successful clients tend to have picked a time on the clock: for example, at 8 p.m. The time varies to accommodate work, parenting, and social schedules. What’s most important is that there's a very definite, known time. Some people specify exceptions when at dinner with others or at social/work functions involving a meal. This doesn’t seem to interfere with success as long as the exceptions don't occur too frequently.

Not surprisingly, many also find it necessary to know when the sun comes up. When will food once again be permitted? For example, “I will never consume calories between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.” (Also with exceptions for social functions, etc.)

Finally, not everyone engages in a total fast during their personal “after-dark” hours. Some have rules which permit low-calorie, easy to digest items, such as raw vegetables, coffee and/or tea with stevia, sugar-free jello, etc. Regardless, knowing exactly when the “sun goes down and comes up” is critical. Without this clear line, there's no way of knowing whether you hit the mark or not, or by how much, and therefore no way to successfully adjust for mistakes.  

The other half of the defense against nighttime food cravings we'll talk about today is what I call "sundown rituals." 

As soon as darkness descends on the hero in a vampire movie, he or she engages in certain protective rituals and activities to avoid being bitten. Perhaps this involves putting silver crosses on the windows, creating a garlic barrier at the door, or setting holy water traps throughout the house. 

In real life, I have clients create and customize a ritual to emphasize the protective mindset, raise awareness of "after-dark food danger," and increase the confidence they can keep their food vampire in its coffin. Your personal sundown ritual serves as a potent reminder that your food time is over for the day and lets your mind know it's safe to begin winding down and to eventually drift off to sleep without overeating.

There are a variety of psychological reasons why rituals can be effective. The strongest one, in my experience, is that the ritual delays the impulses of the lower brain, where food cravings originate, and engages the cognitive function of the upper brain, where the impulses can be inhibited. Having a ritual to mark the transition from eating to not eating in the evening is kind of like "flexing your cortex" at your nighttime overeating vampire and saying, “I’m much stronger than you!” 

Even if the rituals themselves are constructed on superstitious beliefs, the muscle is still exercised and strengthened. Then, once the muscle is strong enough, you can flex it without the ritual if you so choose.

Successful Rituals Used by Our Clients and Readers:  

The actual rituals among clients and readers who'd stopped overeating at night were varied, and a matter of personal preference. That said, they followed a clear pattern with three elements: (1) physical demarcation, (2) physical cleansing, and (3) transition to alternative activities, which may include “allowed” foods or snacks.

Physical demarcation mostly involved going to another room, ideally in another part of the house: “What works best for me is to go upstairs right after dinner. I live in a two-level home with the kitchen on the first floor. I take everything I need for the night upstairs with me—water, a book, etc. And I don't come back down and/or go through the kitchen again for the night."

This was often accompanied by a mantra spoken out loud, such as “kitchen’s closed,” as well as a physical act which accentuated the point, such as clapping one’s hands three times as if one were dusting them off, or loudly opening and closing the kitchen cabinets in a similar fashion.  

Many clients paired this routine with a special nighttime rule, which prevented them from eating while watching television and/or working on the computer. The mindless eating which occurs in front of a screen seemed to make them forget about the clearly demarcated food boundary (sundown). Some went so far as to create an “I will only ever consume calories while sitting at a table” rule.

Physical cleansing was largely focused on the mouth, with most clients indicating they brushed their teeth and/or used mouthwash after their last meal. But many successful people also took a shower and/or a bath whenever they felt tempted, and some said their cravings were diminished when they engaged in self-care for the skin. Moisturizing and exfoliating were chief among these routines.

A large proportion of successes also allowed themselves a low and/or no-calorie drink after sundown, which they relished—often served warm. For example: “I can have water, seltzer, or mint tea. That’s it. I put the seltzer in a huge glass with lots of ice. Sipping on it throughout the evening gives me something to do and hold when I’m anxious, frustrated, and/or want to eat. Mint tea goes in a huge mug, and I carry it around the house as it seems to soothe that I need to put something in my mouth feeling.” Some people also allowed a warm glass of almond milk, regular milk, or a turmeric latte made with almond milk and stevia. 

As mentioned previously, others who reported they'd stopped overeating at night also used sugar-free Jello, some additional protein, or perhaps very specifically measured dessert shake with almond milk and frozen berries if they really had to eat something before bed. Sometimes they added cocoa and dates. 

That said, I don't generally recommend eating anything after sundown. It's not part of the majority success pattern I've observed in my practice, and even if the foods aren't "harmful" and/or "fattening," eating them still reinforces the pathways which suggest eating is possible after dark. I've therefore found it better to have clients add more to their dinner meal if they're finding themselves hungry before bed.

Other alternative after-dark activities in which people who’d stopped overeating at night engaged in included mostly knitting, crochet, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and tracking both their food and night-fasting time. Some had a fasting app, which allowed them to do this. Still other successful readers and clients have reported listening to educational audios during this time. What everyone who used a specific activity had in common was a love of that activity. They relished the time to engage in it.

Nighttime eating also appears to be partially driven by the need to decompress from the day, so successful clients and readers planned activities which helped them wind down and have a good night’s sleep. Mostly the types of things you’d expect: playing with animals, reading a good book, writing in their journal, meditation, taking a hot bath with Epsom Salt, aromatherapy, warm neck pillows, watching a good movie, talking through the day with a trusted loved one or friend, etc.

Many also laid out their workout clothes, buzzed through a hypothetical food plan for the next day, and wrote down at least three good things from the current day for which they felt grateful or proud before going to bed.

The key to effective after-sundown decompression is customizing it for your own unique needs. Winding down before bed in just the way you want to is a critical part of overcoming nighttime eating. You need to put yourself in the right frame of mind to rest and restore throughout the night.

In my next post in this three-part series on overcoming nighttime overeating, I'll talk more specifically about effective mantras to help remind you of your commitment. We'll also go into detail about how to combat evening urges by making your food more satisfying during the day. 

In the meantime, see here for more practical tips and tricks to stop overeating at night, during the day, at work, at home, when you're out with friends... or doing practically anything else!