Nighttime Overeating: Managing Cravings

Do you often blow your diet on after-dinner food cravings?

Posted Oct 27, 2019

Do you ever struggle with nighttime food cravings?  Perhaps you're good all day but blow your diet in the evening?  In part one of my series on on overcoming nighttime overeating, we went into detail about the importance of creating a clear demarcation between day and night, instituting "sundown" rituals to help cement the idea that food was done for the day, and creating a decompression routine to help you let go of the day after dinner and begin to prepare for sleep.  

Today we're going to briefly talk about using mantras to combat after-dinner cravings, and then go into detail about what the research literature says about how nutrition, meal timing, and meal size impacts nighttime eating problems.

Mantras.

In my experience, most people who’ve successfully overcome nighttime overeating have developed a catch phrase or mantra which they repeat to help neutralize cravings when they occur. They are easy to list, but each mantra is extremely powerful in its own right, and best if customized for your own needs.  Here are some examples you might consider:

  • “Dinner and Done!”  This mantra by Liv R. reflects the extremely slippery slope of allowing oneself to even think of eating anything after the evening meal. 
  • “Don’t start!” Virtually everyone who stopped overeating at night was painfully aware that “just one little bite before bedtime” was deadly for them. “Don’t start” encapsulates that notion. 
  • “I Can Have It in the Morning if I Really Want It!”   This type of mantra is largely used to manage nighttime cravings for foods which were otherwise on the person's diet, just not appropriate “after the sun sets.”   
  • “Kitchen’s Closed!”  One of the coaches I supervise claps her hands three times while she enthusiastically says “kitchen’s closed!”  This mantra can not only be used to accentuate the line between the day's eating and evening activities, it can also be repeated throughout the night when you feel bothered by cravings.
  • “Food is Not for Entertainment.”   People who used this mantra wanted to remind themselves that they would not accept the cultural mythology of having to constantly entertain themselves with food, as the big food and big advertising industries would have us do.  To help them remember the craving was, at least in part, driven by industrial profit motive, some would repeat one of my more popular quotes to themselves: "Every time you look for love at the bottom of a bag, box, or container, there’s some fat cat in a white suit with a mustache laughing all the way to the bank!”
  • “I Will Never Eat Myself to Sleep Again!"   Nighttime is for sleeping, and I never eat at night. Simple but profound.
  • “There’s NO Amount of Food That Will Satisfy Me at Night So I Choose to Eat Nothing!”  This mantra reflects the painful experience of all too many readers and clients, endured for way too many years. There is a profound and fundamental truth to it for most people. Morning will come, and food will be satisfying once again.
  • “Let It Burn!”  Nighttime without overeating is one of the best ways to burn fat. Let it happen. 

Nutrition, meal timing, and meal size.  A summary of successful nutritional adjustments for nighttime overeaters:

  • Most importantly, try to enhance your satisfaction with food during the day. Consider adding more “hard chew” foods like carrots, celery, cabbage, etc. Dehydrated vegetables may also add flavor and contribute to satiation and satisfaction. For those who don’t lose control with dark chocolate, a few squares after lunch or dinner may do the trick. 
  • Emphasize a hearty breakfast, medium sized lunch, and a reasonably light but ultra-nutritious dinner.  The old adage "eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at lunch, and a pauper at dinner" seems to be true.
  • Move your dinner to later in the evening and your breakfast to earlier in the morning.  This creates a shorter fasting window in the evening.  I know there are medical benefits to longer fasting periods at night, but in my experience, and as documented by research, if you struggle with nighttime overeating it's not a great idea to expand your nighttime fasting hours... at least not until you've really got the nighttime cravings under control.
  • Try to eat lunch a little later than you normally would too.  This makes it easier to have dinner later as per the suggestion above.  It will also further encourage you to eat a substantial breakfast.  
  • Become a breakfast eater if you aren't already.  Skipping breakfast seems to contribute substantially to nighttime binges.
  • If not medically contraindicated, and if in concert with your dietary philosophy, be sure to include plenty of leafy green vegetables during the day, and enough protein in your evening meal to keep you satiated.
  • Examine your overall nutrition with a licensed physician and/or dietitian.  At minimum, review a full week’s consumption with one of the online nutrition and calorie calculators. In my experience with clients this review is especially necessary if you think you have your nutrition covered!  Many clients who struggle at night were surprised to find deficiencies when they actually examined the details.  Nutritional deficiencies can lead to strong cravings.
  • Avoid trying to lose weight too quickly.  Overly large caloric deficiencies seem to create significant nighttime cravings.
  • Make sure you’re not deficient in Vitamin D, which reportedly helps regulate blood sugar in the evening. Ask your doctor how to test and address this.
  • If you count points of any kind, try to finish them by dinnertime. Avoid the temptation to leave points over for evening.
  • Plan out (and even prepare) your evening meals in the morning before leaving for work. Set everything aside so it’s just waiting for you when you get home.  This further reduces the mindset that obtaining food is "urgent", and can help carry you all the way through the evening with confidence.

Next time we'll talk about the importance of feeling more satisfied with your daytime meals in order to reduce late night cravings, and, in particular, the importance of adding "crunch to your lunch."  In the meantime, see here for more valuable tips and tricks to help you permanently stop overeating.

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

Hyman, M. “8 Steps to Stop Your Nighttime Binges.”   [Blog post. Retrieved from https://drhyman.com/blog/2013/10/09/8-steps-stop-nighttime-binges/]

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