You finished a delicious dinner and are hanging at home. Maybe it’s the lack of structure at night or the feeling of deserving a reward, but those dark post-dinner hours are notorious for “just one more bite”.
Do you need more food?
Your body might not. But some part of you does.
Even if you’ve had no issues with snacking during the day, some part of you has become dependent on the feeling of comfort, security, and fullness nighttime snacking brings you.
I say “some part of you” because the key to overcoming unwanted habits is to separate yourself from the behavior and then love the hell out of it.
You are not your eating habit. But it is part of you, and working with it requires compassion, not control.
Eating Late At Night Is Really Common
You are not broken or weird for returning to the kitchen for more food at night. In fact, nighttime snacking is probably more common than you think, and there’s plenty of sensible reasons for it:
- Perhaps you learned as a child that the day was not complete without a post-dinner treat.
- Maybe you restrained yourself at dinner so you could go back for more goodies after the meal.
- Quite possibly work prevented you from eating enough food during the day leading to real hunger at night.
There is no moral judgment around this. There is only one simple question for yourself:
Is this pattern of eating after dinner impacting your health or happiness?
If not, don’t create problems where there are none.
If so, keep reading…
When Eating At Night Becomes Problematic
The hormones that regulate your blood sugar, hunger, fat storage, and energy balance fluctuate during the day. The issue is that they tend to become less responsive at night and have a disproportionate effect on fat storage.
Exercise physiologist Teri Mosey captures this importance of meal timing on your metabolism:
“In addition to what we eat, when we eat matters. Our circadian rhythm regulates glucose and lipid oxidation. Depending on the time of day, these aspects of energy metabolism are stimulated or downregulated, with the highest insulin sensitivity and thermic effect of food occurring in the morning (Poggiogalle, Jamshed & Peterson 2018). Gastric emptying and blood flow are greater during the day, while metabolic responses to glucose are slower in the evening (Sanders & Moore 1992; Takahashi et al. 2018).Teri Mosey, PhD, “The Art and Science of Intermittent Fasting,”
In short, your digestive and metabolic capacity tend to be greatest in the middle of the day. This is why you could eat the same meal at noon and at midnight and it would have a dramatically different impact on your body.
If nighttime snacking is causing you digestive discomfort and bloating, a mismatch between your innate metabolic rhythms and your eating may be to blame.
There is No Single Solution to Nighttime Snacking
Most suggestions to curb late-night snacking only deal with one part of this complex behavior. As a result, you may struggle to manage symptoms without really addressing the root causes.
Common advice to help manage extra eating at night include:
- Sip tea or chew gum.
- Eliminate binge foods from your home.
- Go for a walk.
- Don’t skip meals.
- Have healthier snack options around.
- Call a friend.
- Don’t eat out of the box or bag.
- Limit your portions.
- Just get to bed earlier.
All these suggestions to stop nighttime eating have their merit. But at their heart, they address the question, “How do I control this behavior?” It turns out, this is the wrong question to ask.
The more pertinent question is,
“Why does this pattern keep repeating itself?”
If you really want to uncover the underlying causes of nighttime eating, you need to be willing to dig deeper than “lock the fridge and throw away the chips”.
Nighttime snacking is often more about your inner dialogue and subtle emotional experience than it is about food itself. In fact, the context of your eating — where it occurs, the order of events leading up to it, who is around watching (or not), etc.— plays a significant and powerful role in shaping what goes into your mouth.
If you are ready to do the transformational inner work to shift your eating habit, here are 7 steps that will move you towards freedom and away from unwanted nighttime eating.
Pre-Step: Eliminate Obvious Causes Of Hunger
Before you address the psychology of your unwanted eating, you must rule-out these physical factors that push you towards nighttime hunger. Some of the most common reasons for extra hunger at night include:
- Insufficient Total Daily Energy Intake: Make sure you’re eating enough food during the day. If your last meal was at noon and it’s now 10pm, it makes sense that you’d be hungry. Any restriction or under-eating before dinner (consciously or not) will inevitably lead to more hunger at night. Patterns of overeating at night often become self-perpetuating, as a big meal at night leads to decreased hunger and eating the next morning, which then sets you up for another big eating experience later that day. At worst, this pattern feeds into a vicious cycle of exercising or restricting to compensate for your perceived loss of control.
- Skewed Macronutrient Balance: The body has a built-in mechanism to distinguish between fats, carbs, and proteins, and you need all of these to survive. If you restrict or eliminate any of these food groups, you can eat a calorically sufficient meal and still be hungry because your body is searching for missing nutrients. This is especially true when adopting a new dietary pattern. (Note: If you are pursuing a specific dietary protocol like intermittent fasting, low-carb, low-fat, etc., expect some hunger initially as your sensations and hormones adapt.)
- The Allure of Hyper-Palatable Foods: If your nighttime snacking is driven by a desire for highly processed, hyper-palatable foods, it may be wise to eliminate these triggers from your home. Ultra Processed foods have been specifically designed for overeating and mindless snacking. They can activate brain reward systems that make it harder to sense fullness and regulate healthful eating. In fact, many snacks have been engineered to keep you coming back for more.
- Poor Sleeping Habits: What tends to cause eating problems is inconsistency with your sleep and meals. Generally, your body likes to eat around the same time every day. In fact, your body actually prepares for digestion before a meal begins based upon expectations of incoming food. Eating at awkward times and having irregular sleeping patterns mess with your body’s natural eating rhythm and can dysregulate your hunger and fullness.
1) Accept There’s A Part Of You Cannot (Yet) See Or Feel That Is Driving You To Eat
One part of you wants to eat. One part of you wants to change. The challenge is getting these parts to cooperate.
Before cooperation comes recognition and acceptance. You need to acknowledge that you have invisible pieces inside of you — your inner child, your rebellious teen, your perfectionist, your anxious adult, etc. — all of which can play a leading role in nighttime snacking behavior.
When you are headed to the kitchen for more food, the question is which one of these parts is in control?
There’s a good chance you’re being driven from some deeper part of you that you have not yet learned to see or feel. You have inklings it is there, but the conscious part of your mind ignores or rationalizes it away without fully coming into contact with it.
You need to admit that there’s something beyond your current level of awareness calling for your attention. It is your duty to find out what this is and bring it out of the shadow, or continue to be held in its grips.
2) Give Your Eating Habit A Name
It can be helpful to give the nighttime snacker in you a name. Let it have a personality. Let it have needs and desires.
If you can’t come up with a name, simply call this your “Snacking Self”.
You are trying to create distance. You need to make your habit safe enough to look at. Naming it helps you see it and feel it. It separates you from your eating habit so you can begin to work with it as an object rather than something you are subject to.
By giving this part of you a voice, you can begin to listen to what it needs. It is like you are staring a new relationship. Be gentle and curious.
3) Empathize & Forgive This Part Of You
When you recognize that this behavior is a way for some part of you to displace stress or feel secure, you can begin to empathize with it rather than push it away. You can begin to see your unwanted eating not as a burden, but as a part of you looking to be included in your growth.
Take some time to understand what this part of you is feeling. Ask your Snacking Self:
- What are you here to tell me?
- What do you really need?
- How can I talk your language?
- How can I best relate to you?
Taking time to truly listen to this part allows you to understand what lies beneath the surface of eating. It makes it less personal and easier to forgive it for wanting some comfort, reassurance, or adventure.
Remember that this part of you wasn’t trying to sabotage your diet or ruin your evening. It might have simply needed a feeling that was reliable — the fullness of eating — to signify safety at the end of the day. It was doing the best it could with the tools available. And like all of us, it has flaws and makes mistakes.
Practicing forgiveness begins to release the energy frozen in your system. It gives you the emotional freedom to end this pattern of self-reproach and begin the process of healing and integration.
4) Slowdown & Accompany Your Nighttime Snacking Self
Once you’ve spent some time developing empathy for your Snacking Self, it’s time to move into the embodied experience of eating. This means allowing your Snacking Self to emerge, perhaps even intentionally planning a date nite with it, and showing up in that moment with as much mindfulness as possible.
In other words, you need to accompany your Snacking Self on its journey with food to gather more data.
You are practicing being in the eating experience and slightly removed from it at the same time. This is not easy. You will need a lot of curiosity and kindness.
Getting to know your Snacking Self from the inside out requires slowing down and being alert, aware, and attuned to the physical and mental experience as it unfolds.
Record the specific details of your eating pattern as you notice them:
- Notice where you are located when the habit shows up?
- What time of day is it?
- What are the earliest signs of this part of you emerging?
- How long goes your Snacking Self hang around?
- How is your body positioned when you’re in snacking mode?
- What are you looking at while eating?
- What utensils (or not) are you using to eat?
- Who is around you?
- What is the predominant feeling of your Snacking Self?
- How quickly are you chewing (or not)?
- What is the primary sensation present? Where do you feel that in your body?
- What is your breathing like?
- Is the room dark or well-lit?
- What smells are present?
- Where is your attention relative to your body?
- What is your Snacking Self’s favorite part of the experience?
- What cues cause you to stop eating?
- What is the first thought immediately after Snacking Self goes away?
It helps to have a journal to write down these observations. It may take days or even weeks to fully uncover the rich sensory, psychological, and contextual factors that create your eating experience.
It’s okay to feel afraid, frustrated, or impatient with the process. The more you come to know these intimate patterns, the easier it is to change them.
The idea is that you cannot get rid of something you never owned in the first place. If you don’t pay attention while you’re eating, it is like you never actually at anything. Your mind doesn’t register it. Your body doesn’t feel it.
You must fully own and inhabit your lived experience of nighttime snacking if you want to let it go.
5) Create A New Story That Empowers All Parts Of You
A quick review of the process so far:
- Accept this part of you is driving your nighttime eating.
- Give it a name and start a conversation.
- Empathize with its needs and explore what it’s looking for beyond food.
- Accompany it in its “native eating habitat” and experience it in action.
Now it is time to author a new story with your Snacking Self.
To restore good faith in your ability to change, you need to let go of any antagonism towards yourself and your unwanted eating pattern. A helpless victim mindset will lead you nowhere. You are companions in this life journey, not competitors to be vanquished.
With awareness and objectivity, you can shift perspectives and say:
“I am not powerless in this situation. Nighttime snacking is an experience that a part of me is creating, and if I’ve created it, I also have the power to dismantle it. I can rewrite a new story.”
Your new story needs to be built on trust and mutuality. It needs to validate the deeper needs of your Snacking Self, and it needs to reaffirm that you are on the same team. Let your story take responsibility to move forward together.
Tell your Snacking Self something along these lines:
“I appreciate you, and I love the hell out of you. I know it can feel scary/uncomfortable/unsafe [insert primary emotional need] at night after dinner. I know food is an easy way to deal with those feelings. I also know that eating more usually doesn’t make either of us very happy. I’m here for you if you tell me what you need?”
Build trust that you won’t abandon your Snacking Self. Commit to it that you can create a new experience together and then be specific about what that looks like.
6) Establish A Menu Of Alternatives To Snacking
It’s helpful to offer your Snacking Self new options when it feels most alive at night. Perhaps a little self-massage, a cup of tea, or a good stretch will help your Snacking Self feel secure.
This is where those initial strategies for dealing with nighttime snacking become useful alternatives to eating more. The key is doing all the previous steps first before launching into specific actions.
Once you’ve created a menu of alternatives to snacking, you may want to create a simple grounding phrase you can repeat to help your Snacking Self feel heard:
- “Feeling you here with me.”
- “Loving you as you are.”
- “Caring for you right now without food.”
- “Being together now and in the future.”
This helps create connection and trust. You must be really honest with yourself about what your heart truly needs in that moment. The emphasis is always towards regulation and integration rather than dissociation that drives you to eat more.
7) Re-Embody Your Nighttime Eating Experience
It’s time to run an experiment.
Rather than hanging around waiting for your snacking habit to arise, you need to consciously choose to snack after dinner. Only this time, you’re going to come equipped with your new empowering story, and you’re going to change the context of your eating to make it easier to unhinge old patterns.
First set the scene for a mindful eating experience:
- If you usually eat standing up, sit down.
- If you usually use your fingers to eat, use a utensil.
- If you’re usually checked-out and looking at something else, pay attention to your food.
- If you’re typically hurried or hiding, slow down and make your snacking obvious. Put it on a plate. Glorify it.
Play with these contextual factors surrounding your eating. Doing so disrupts the unconscious patterns in your nervous system, and allows your body to re-experience your Snacking Self in a new shape. You want to move from disembodied, mindless nighttime snacking to a place of awareness and choice.
As you go through your deliberate eating, notice what your Snacking Self is saying now?
You may still experience hunger and the desire to keep eating. But what you are looking for is a little more freedom around the experience.
- Is there a little less compulsion?
- A little more trust in your body?
- Do you feel something that you never noticed before? Is it tolerable?
- Do you believe in your power to choose what action is best in this moment?
However subtle these shifts may seem, they reinforce that change is indeed possible. Celebrate these wins in awareness and action and keep experimenting.
Learn To Love Your Nighttime Snacking To Let It Go
If you follow these 7 steps, you might notice the drive to keep eating at night fade away.
Surely, you can snack if you want. But the ritual of nighttime eating will no longer be your only option. You now have choice where you previously felt compelled by habit.
This is ability to relate to food with awareness and choice is true freedom.
And it all stems from the surprising step of seeing nighttime snacking not as a tyrant to be controlled but as an experience to be owned, explored, and evolved.
With loving embodied integration,
~ Jeff Siegel
Poggiogalle, E., Jamshed, H., & Peterson, C.M. 2018. Circadian regulation of glucose, lipid, and energy metabolism in humans. Metabolism, 84, 11–27.
Sanders, S.W., & Moore, J.G. 1992. Gastrointestinal chronopharmacology: Physiology, pharmacology and therapeutic implications. Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 54 (1), 1–15.
Takahashi, M., et al. 2018. Effects of meal timing on postprandial glucose metabolism and blood metabolites in healthy adults. Nutrients, 10 (11), 1763.