Three Steps for Managing Nighttime Emotional Eating

By Katie, 6:13 am

I am such a creature of habit.

Every day I wake up at the same time. Every day I wear my hair the same way. And every night, around 8:30 p.m., I have an evening snack.

(Source)

Most of these routines are harmless. Sure, some aspects of my life – and my hairstyle! - would be more exciting if I shook things up a bit, but overall it’s no big deal. Except for that last one.

You see, because of my history with disordered eating, I’m pretty wary of any kind of set-in-stone food routine. If my eating habits are the exact same day in and day out, it’s usually a sign that something isn’t right.

In this particular case, I’m noticing that my evening snack has been filling more of an emotional need than a physical one. I’m not eating it because I’m hungry; rather, I’m eating it because I find it relaxing to do so. For the past few weeks I’ve let my evenings get so busy that it feels impossible to wind down. Eating a snack is a signal to my brain that my work for the day is complete, and in that sense eating has been very soothing.

While that might not seem too problematic, for me it’s a slippery slope, and I’d rather not go back down that path of using food for emotional reasons. So yesterday I pulled out my e-book, and decided to take some pieces of my own advice. Here’s how I’m approaching the issue.

Three Steps for Managing Nighttime Emotional Eating

1. Ask myself if my hunger is physical or emotional.

Obviously I already know that it’s largely emotional, and yet simply asking myself the question in the moment can really help. If it turns out I am physically hungry – say, I had an early dinner – then of course an evening snack is perfectly appropriate.

But if I’m honest with myself, I’ll be able to acknowledge when the urge to eat is stemming from an emotional void. Just recognizing what’s going on in the moment is a huge step.

2. If it’s physical hunger, commit to eating mindfully.

A telltale trait of emotional eating is that I don’t pay attention to my food, like I want to ignore or deny the fact that I’m actually eating. So if I do end up going for an evening snack, I’m determined to eat it mindfully rather than scarf it down without even tasting it. That means I’m not eating it in front of the television or while I’m surfing the Internet. Nope, I’m giving my food 100% of my undivided attention.

3. If it’s emotional hunger, try something else.

If, as I suspect, the urge to eat really has more to do with a need for relaxation than with a need for food, I’m committing to finding alternative ways of winding down. Indeed, I’ve made a whole list of more effective possibilities: watching television (without multi-tasking!), reading a novel, flipping through a magazine, sipping a cup of tea, playing with my cats, etc.

I firmly believe that if the problem really is that I’m having trouble relaxing, doing one of these things is going to help me way more than a bowl of ice cream can.  

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Overall I’m not beating myself up for falling back into a little emotional eating. It’s easy to do, especially for a creature of habit like me. But some routines – especially ones that haven’t served me well in the past – are better off broken.

Have you ever struggled with the urge to snack at night even when you’re not hungry? How have you managed it?

26 Responses to “Three Steps for Managing Nighttime Emotional Eating”

  1. Sarah says:

    They are great steps for determining hunger at any time of the day. Do you think there is a difference between night/day emotional hunger? I think I have found that my emotions at night are often from a different place than during the day. It’s weird and something I’m thinking about a little more.

    • Katie says:

      I do think that emotional hunger feels different for me at night. I think it’s because there’s more “space,” if you will. During the day I am so busy that any emotional eating urges are fleeting, but at night – once things have settled down – they feel more strong because there are less distractions.

  2. I am definitely someone who struggles with emotional eating periodically. I know these steps, but I find it comforting to know that other well adjusted people go through this as well. Plus, a reminder of the appropriate responses to hunger is always welcome. :)

  3. Nighttime eating used to be a bigger issue for me than it is now…and part of it was emotional, but a big part of it was due to physical imbalances that I didn’t know I had. I’d go through the cycle of feeling hungry and then being angry/guilty because I didn’t think I should be hungry…and then I’d finally “give in” and eat and the cycle would continue. Now, if I am truly hungry some time after dinner, I will eat something knowing that my body must truly need it! Other times, I make the decision to just go to bed…

    • Katie says:

      I think that’s a big part of my problem these past few weeks. I’m more tired than hungry, but because I’ve got so much to do (basically packing to move this weekend) I don’t just go to bed!

  4. Dana says:

    I eat a BULK of my food at night. I’m just a night snacker :) I kinda feel “bad about it” sometimes because we hear all over the place that your not suppose to snack at night but I AM HUNGRY 90 percent of the time when I eat a night. The other 10 percent of the time I just eat because I have to make sure ive had enough food for the day! But emotionally eating is deff. a huge fear of mine. My dietitian is actually trying to get me to realize that if it happened every once and a while there is NOTHING wrong with that. The problem comes if we do it every single day or when food becomes our only way of coping with hard times. Kinda a different way of looking at it!

    • Katie says:

      Absolutely! I completely agree that there’s nothing wrong with eating for reasons besides physical hunger every now and then. My problem is that I have been a hardcore emotional eater in the past, and at this point I’m eating at night solely out of habit. It sounds to me like your nighttime eating is definitely the HEALTHY kind, both physically and emotionally. Thanks for sharing your experience! :)

  5. Dana says:

    i guess i was just trying to say that if emotional eating happens every now and then its nothing to beat yourself up about or get hung up on!

  6. Tamara says:

    I think I used to do this, but the thing is, once you start eating intuitively it’s really hard to remember what it’s like to want to eat when you’re not hungry. I know there was a time when I could eat an entire loaf of bread because I was stressed out, but now if I’m not physically hungry I don’t even want to think about food. Like, last night, I was watching a television show and one of the characters was eating shortbread cookies. I know a year ago that would have set off a major craving no matter what time of day it was, but I was full from dinner so they just looked dry and unappetizing. This was just a few hours after receiving a jury summons too…so my stress levels were even higher than usual!

    So this comment is entirely unhelpful regarding strategies for dealing with emotional eating, but hopefully it shows a little light at the end of the tunnel.

    • Katie says:

      I actually think it’s quite helpful! It makes me think that my problem is more that, because I’m under a lot of stress right now, I’m actually having trouble defining hunger as separate from other things, like fatigue. I think I might be THINKING I’m hungry when I’m actually tired, or something like that. And yes, I’m glad to hear about your experience because it does shine a light at the end of the tunnel! :)

  7. bubu says:

    Great post – nighttime de-stressing is always a major minefield for me. As I’m learning and trying to move to a more intuitive eating lifestyle (including with your terrific e-book!) I’ve been trying to head off the evening stress issues this way: As soon as I put my kids down to bed, ending a very whirlwind 5 hours from after school through tuck-in, I go directly into my bedroom, turn on a table lamp, sit down on the floor, and meditate for several minutes, then journal, and end with a bit of inspirational reading (buddhist essays, generally). I am often tempted to skip it to get to the “real” relaxing on the couch with the TV, but I know now that to truly unwind I first need total silence and solitude. I emerge from this 20-30 minutes in a much calmer, more relaxed frame of mind, ready to chill on the couch or watch dishes or fold laundry feeling less frantic, more mindful. I also can then fully shift to being with my husband having had some transition time after the kids. Not sure this is for everyone but it works for me – it ensures I claim some alone/me time in the day without its interfering with everything else that has to happen. I find the emotional eating urges at night are much less strong if I’ve been doing this routine, and they come on stronger if I fall out of it. Geneen Roth has a wonderful image for meditation: the mind as a ruffled, windy lake that gradually calms down and becomes still – that’s what I feel I get out of this practice.

    • Katie says:

      I can’t thank you enough for sharing this. I think this is exactly what I need. My big problem is that when I sit down to “relax,” I can’t really do it because I’m still so wound up. Taking a few minutes to be by myself and do some deep breathing and/or other meditative exercises could be really helpful. I can’t wait to try this!

  8. FindingMe says:

    I just wanted to say, I find a lot of help in reading your blog posts. And also in the comments here. Thank-you to all of you!

    • Katie says:

      Thank you! I really do feel like we’ve got a community going on here, which is so helpful. :)

  9. Having an after dinner snack is a real challenge for me – still – and I have been at this for 4.5 years! For me, I think the challenge is learning the difference between habit and true emotional eating. I was raised to have dessert after dinner every night (as well as after lunch) and so for me, the challenge is figuring out if the urge is truly an emotion I need to address or if it is that old, ingrained habit kicking in.

    One of the ways I have overcome this is to have some sort of dessert as a part of the meal. This really helps me because if I get the urge later, I can usually pin point right away that it is emotional because I have already taken care of my sweet tooth.

    • Katie says:

      That’s a great idea, Christie. Thank you for helping me think through this – after reading your comment, I think that it is less of an emotional thing and more of a habit thing.

      • It is a really fine line, Katie, because technically, I guess you could call habitual eating emotional – as in emotionally attached to a behavior. BUT, I do think it is worth digging into because as far as the work that needs to be done around the behavior is different.

  10. Yes, nighttime eating used to be a big problem for me. During a very stressful period of my life, I literally tried to eat the stress away every night. And I used the strategies you have listed to stop it. Even now, I still sometimes think “food” when things get stressful, but, most times, I am mindful and figure out what’s going on before reaching for food.

  11. Nicole., RD says:

    I don’t usually struggle with this, but the past week has been tough. I think I need to add more protein at dinner because my eating seems to be half emotional and half actual hunger. I just need to learn that, if hungry at night, to make a GOOD choice! Great post, Katie!

  12. McKella says:

    I’ve struggled with eating at night, usually chocolate truffles or some other chocolatey delicious thing. It’s a way to unwind and sometimes it’s just nice to have a treat, but when I eat three…four…five…I know something’s up. That’s when I get out my notebook and do some emotional digging. That doesn’t always remove the urge to eat, but it’s a step in the right direction.

  13. As I finish off some peanut M&Ms tonight, I really needed this post. I’ve found the more satisfied I am with the meals I eat during the day, the less I’m inclined to eat at night. We’ll see if I take my own advice!

  14. Sharon says:

    I think we need to be careful judging our eating as it could trigger the diet and deprivation eating behaviors. I have struggled with disordered eating for most of my life ( age 49), from under to over eating and try not to label my eating habits as bad. I believe we do eat for emotional reasons at times and it is part of Normal eating behavior!

    • Katie says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sharon! I agree that for most people, most of the time, a little emotional eating isn’t a problem. But I have to be careful because for me, emotional eating is my biggest disordered eating struggle. There have been times in my life when emotional eating was the only eating I did! So I’m just very wary of going down that path again.

  15. This post really resonates with me. I have struggled with nighttime emotional eating for YEARS, and while I feel as though I’ve been able to conquer many of my past disordered eating patterns, this one in particular continues to be a lingering challenge. Your tips are very helpful, and I’ll definitely be trying them out tonight, when I too, sit down to my nightly “comfort snack.” I often read blogs while I eat, and realize five minutes later that I’ve consumed a substantial amount of food without realizing it!

  16. Carolyn says:

    After just listening to Australian Dr Russ Harris’ meditation on mindful emotions, I am more willing than usual to face the emotional minefield that feels like my night time routine.. The choices lately that I have left myself with are ignore my emotions at the end of the day through 1) food 2) tv or 3) a book?
    And will I ensure I get to the bathroom to clean face and teeth?or will I clean them and then talk myself into another piece of emotion-stifling toast?

    Or will I be brave, practice healthy night time routines, with maybe a call to a loved one, wind-down music, meditation, and true awareness of my breathing and emotions?

    There have certainly been times of awareness and a gentle but determined discipline where I’ve acknowledged my emotions…
    of loneliness-lacking a partner,
    of fear- have I achieved enough to be satisfied with my day?
    And more fear- will I manage my day, efficiently, investing enough energy and time in tasks that give me inner satisfaction?
    Will I make a to do list?
    And if I do will I meet my own requirements?
    What’s the least I can expect of myself so I know I’ll still be proud if that’s all I achieve?

    Toast and hot milk or a second helping of dinner or dessert, or another half hour of tv, or reading a book until I’m so tired I can’t concentrate anymore- none of these distractions deal with any of these emotions.

    Neither does eating whilst multitasking or eating quickly- it detracts from the sheer bliss of focussing on a meal, a bite, a mouthful of exquisite food.

    I promise to continue to focus on eating food as if it were the nourishment of my body’s temple. To notice the sensations of my emotions, rather than cover them with emotional food-wallpaper. To listen to, and act on what truly nourishes and nurtures me.

    To give myself the gift of a healthy night time routine.. Complete with clean face and teeth, a faith that the next day will take care of itself , some deep calming breaths, and a gentle awareness of the end of the day,& a respect for how well I’ve lived it.

    Acknowledging them does.

    There are periods in my 32 years of life where I’ve faced the

    • Katie says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Carolyn. You’ve made some important and powerful promises to yourself here. I can certainly say from experience that nothing – not food, not TV, nothing – is as helpful as acknowledging and truly feeling my emotions. Even though sometimes it’s painful, it’s always worth it.

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