How many times have you eaten super healthy all day and then ruined it all by binge eating at night?
For me it was like a switch went off at 8pm signaling that it was time to eat junk food.
Sometimes it was after a thought like, “You’ve been good all day, (or maybe for the last few days) you can have a treat” – which, hi, did not end up being a treat, but instead was a large extra meal.
Or maybe I just felt bored and watching tv wasn’t entertaining enough. I needed more entertainment! And food would be it.
Then there was the urge that would come out of nowhere. The urge to eat whatever junk food I had in my cabinets or what I could get from just a short walk to the 7-Eleven around the corner.
I’d give in to those thoughts and feelings, which sounded like a great idea at the time, but pretty much immediately after eating, I’d wish I hadn’t done it.
That’s when the guilt or regret would set in.
So I’d tell myself it wasn’t going to happen again and I meant it.
But it did happen again. And again. And again.
Nighttime was the hardest time for me to say “no” and it’s also the most common time that people give in and binge. So let’s talk about a few reasons why this is.
You aren’t eating enough during the day.
When you do this, your brain goes into survival mode and urges you to eat a lot of foods that will give you a quick burst of energy, like sugar and simple carbs. It wants to make up for all that energy you robbed it of all day and it also wants to store up some extra in case you deprive it again. Your brain just wants you to survive and when you eat too little for an extended time it becomes worried that you’re going to starve to death.
Maybe you binged last night and you’re trying to counter it by eating way less today. Maybe you’re trying to lose weight so your solution is to eat very little or skip meals. This was one of my biggest offenses because I had a tendency to set my daily calorie goal too low in an attempt to lose weight. After a few days of eating too little, that urge to binge would start creeping in and then it would hit like a ton of bricks.
When you’ve spent much of your life on a diet or counteracting binges, it can be difficult to allow yourself to eat enough during the day. You’ve become disconnected from your body’s hunger and fullness signals and therefore aren’t able to trust them, or maybe even notice them. Instead you rely on outside sources such as calorie counts or meal plans and unfortunately, neither are reliable for your specific body. Maybe 400 calories for lunch isn’t enough for you. Or maybe it was yesterday, but not today. Maybe a chicken breast with a cup of veggies and a ½ cup of rice for dinner isn’t enough for you. Or maybe it was yesterday, but not today. This is why it is so important to experiment with different amounts and types of foods at each meal to relearn what true fullness feels like in your body.
In a similar vein, you could also not be eating enough foods you actually enjoy.
When we try to eat healthily, sometimes we eat foods we don’t like just because they’re good for us. By the end of the day all you want is something that actually tastes good! But healthy doesn’t have to equal bland. Don’t deprive yourself of flavor for the sake of losing weight or trying to become healthier. There are plenty of foods out there that are healthy and taste great. Find out which ones you like so you’re not in such dire need of yumminess by the end of the day.
Come evening, you’re tired, and the more mentally tired you are the harder it is to make healthy decisions.
I know I felt this effect a lot. I worked in restaurants for years and after a full day or night of running around, multi-tasking, and dealing with people, both customers and co-workers, my brain was exhausted. Even the thought of making another decision made my brain hurt. Then this is what would happen: I’d want to treat myself to something delicious, a.k.a. something unhealthy, because I deserved it! Also, sugar and carbs give quick energy bursts so of course that would be the best option to make me feel better as fast as possible.
Now, my rational brain knows that I would be much better off in the long run eating something that was nutritious. I would still get energy, but just not as quickly. My irrational brain just wants the junk food. Not only would I get the quick energy, but also a nice dopamine hit, which activates the reward centers in the brain. When you’re tired or stressed, there’s a solid chance that irrationality is going to win, especially if it’s become your go-to, which brings me to my next reason –
You have made a habit of eating at night.
What you do over and over becomes a habit so if you eat at night, night after night, then that’s going to be what you program yourself to automatically do. If you continuously eat in front of the tv, then when you sit in front of the tv your brain is going to signal you to eat. If you always eat after dinner, then you’ll always want to eat after dinner. If you always binge eat at night, then you’ll always binge eat at night. Continually following these patterns are what strengthen the habit.
The habit of nighttime eating can just happen on it’s own or it can go hand-in-hand with the effect of being mentally tired. When you’re tired, continuing a habit wins over breaking a habit. Breaking a habit takes extra energy and you don’t want to use it. You want to relax, not become more tired or stressed.
No matter which of these reasons is the cause of your nighttime eating, the real reason is how you’re feeling.
Your feelings drive your actions so your feelings drive your eating.
If you’re not eating enough then you’re feeling deprived – physically from not eating enough or mentally from not eating enough foods you like – and then you will eat.
If you’re feeling tired, stressed, or bored, then you will eat.
If you simply just feel an overwhelming urge to eat, then you will eat.
This doesn’t have to be how you are forever.
It’s how you react right now because that’s what you’ve conditioned yourself to do.
You’ve practiced eating at nighttime because of those feelings and you’ve gotten very efficient at it.
But just as you’ve practiced doing it, you can practice not doing it.
That’s how habits get broken.
This is right about when the, “But I can’t stop doing it” arguments come in.
Believe me when I say, yes you can.
No one is forcing the food down your throat. You don’t have to do it.
You’re making the choice to do it because it’s easier than feeling however you feel in that moment.
So then the way to decondition your nighttime binge eating habit is to feel instead of eat.
Those are your options – feel or eat.
Considering your want to stop eating excess food at night, I think feeling would be the better option.
You can relax without food.
Whatever it is that you want to do at night while you’re eating, you can do without eating. You can watch tv or a movie without eating. You can spend time with other people without eating. You can feel your urges and cravings without eating.
And to alleviate that last one, eat more delicious, healthy foods during the day, k?
You’re going to bed soon. However you’re feeling, whatever it is that you’re trying to avoid, it will be gone soon. You can survive a few hours. Then the next thing you know, you’ll wake up the next day and be ecstatic about not having binged last night. In the morning, having waited out that feeling from last night will totally have been worth it.