How to stop nighttime snack attacks

Do you find you do quite well with what you’re eating in the day and then your good intentions go by the wayside come evening, when you know you’re not really hungry? When many of my clients first come to me, they tell me that after dinner and watching TV is the time they struggle and end up reaching for the snacks. Nighttime eating is a major culprit for extra calories and weight gain. It can become something of a vicious cycle that you struggle to break away from but with the right mindset and tactics, it can be done. Here are some top tips for stopping nighttime eating.

What are the triggers?

A few potential triggers of nighttime eating include:

● Limiting what you eat in the day (or have less of an appetite in the daytime) and overcompensate later on. With this approach to eating, you can easily eat more calories at night than in the rest of the day combined.

● Eating in line with your emotions. If you’re feeling stressed, bored, lonely, upset or angry, emotional eating can trigger late night eating. It’s pretty common to feel more in control of your eating in the daytime, especially if you have a fairly structured day that doesn’t allow “free” eating. With more freedom in the evenings, emotional eating can become more of a problem.

● Late night eating can also become a habit. If you tend to snack when you’re in front of the television, it could be down to habit, for example. There can be a strong feeling of association, as in watching TV = eating your favourite snacks. It can of course also be the time you reach for the wine.  

● Eating in the evening or late at night can also be a “reward” for a busy or stressful day. If things didn’t quite go to plan during the day, your brain may tell you that you deserve a sweet treat to make up for it.

● If none of that really applies to you, it may just be due to biology. According to a study published in the Obesity research journal, the body’s internal clock spikes your hunger levels at around 8pm. And guess what kind of snacks you’re more likely to want at this time? Salty, sweet and high-carb snacks, for the most part.

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Tips for tackling nighttime eating

Mindful eating

A lot of late-night snacking is mindless and it’s often done on autopilot. How many times do you find yourself snacking in front of the television or while you’re cooking … often without even thinking about what you’re doing and whether you’re really hungry? Chances are, you’re not really aware of how much extra you’re eating. One way to avoid this is mindful eating. Get rid of any distractions that stop you from eating mindfully and make eating at the table a big deal. Mindful eating is the best way to get back in touch with your body’s natural hunger cues.

Change your routine

If you do a lot of your nighttime eating as part of a routine, it’s definitely time to have a go at breaking the habit and seeing if you can curb evening snack attacks.

For example, instead of snacking while you watch television, try doing something else while you catch up on your programmes, especially in the breaks (which can trigger late night snacking if they feature junk food). Doing some mini workouts in the ad breaks or working out throughout the whole programme is even better, especially if you haven’t been very active in the day. Or doing something with your hands, a crafting project, or the ironing.

Always tend to veg out after dinner? Go for a walk instead. It’ll stop you from getting bored and burn off a few calories (rather than adding any!).

Set a timer

Next time you get the urge to snack in an evening, set a timer to go off in 10 minutes. This is how long the average craving will last if you ignore it and find something else to occupy your mind.

In the meantime, distract yourself and see how you feel when the 10 minutes is off. You might be surprised to realise that the craving is no longer an issue. Positive self-talk and affirmations can help with this too.

And if it still is? Go ahead and have a small snack … but swap the original craving for a healthier version.

Sip herbal teas

Dehydration can be a factor in cravings and sometimes, you may be thirsty rather than hungry. A glass of water can help but you may prefer to sip on a herbal tea instead, especially if you have go-to flavours to help you relax and have a “moment”.

Find other ways to reward yourself

If you often use food as a reward for a bad day, look for other ways to de-stress. Pamper yourself or have a relaxing soak in a warm bath, reading a good book, watching a favourite film or chatting to a friend, for example. This can help to train your brain away from the idea that food is an acceptable reward for a bad day. If this is usually a big trigger for starting off your nighttime eating, it can be a secret weapon in your efforts to move away from snack attacks.

Keep a food and mood diary

If you can’t spot any obvious patterns between your emotions and your nighttime eating, try keeping a food and mood diary. Note down how you were feeling when you wanted to snack or binge at night and you may be able to see some link. If you’re noticing that particular emotions are triggering late night snacking, you can work on tackling these.

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