Can’t Stop Overeating at Night?: 5 Steps to Stop Feeling Like a Post-Dinner Food Junkie

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I’m Sarah (she/her), a Toronto-based writer, anti-diet nutritionist, and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor. I teach folks how to have a healthy relationship with food and accept their natural body size.

Hi, I'm Sarah

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Hey loves! This post is part of a 4-part series designed to boost your body image and improve your relationship with food so you can let go of dieting. I know so many of you believe diets don’t work, yet simultaneously also believe the next diet will work for you. Or, you’re done with diets, but intuitive eating feels so overwhelming (so many principles!) and you aren’t sure how you’ll ever shake the diet mentality. That’s okay! Over the next five weeks, we’re covering:

  • Can’t Stop Overeating at Night?: 5 Steps to Stop Feeling Like a Post-Dinner Food Junkie

  • Where “Feeling Fat” Comes From and How to Start Feeling Comfortable in Your Own Skin

  • 10 Reasons You Still Hate Your Body (And What To Do About It)

  • Owning What We Eat: Why all Diets and Eating Styles Make Us Crazy Around Food

Let’s set the scene.

You make sure to sit down to a nourishing breakfast. Maybe it’s a green smoothie made with Granny Smith apple, celery, cucumber, Romaine lettuce, watercress, and the juice of a lime and lemon. Lunch is always a salad topped with some kind of protein or a bowl of soup. You snack on hummus and vegetables. But come nighttime, you can’t stop eating to the point of overeating. You find yourself compulsively raiding the cupboards, eating whatever you can get your hands on. Crackers, half-empty bags of potato chips, that lone pint of ice cream, chocolates your friend Suzy brought over on the weekend. You can’t stop and more significantly, you feel totally out of control. You don’t feel satisfied, and worse, you feel crazy. If I could just control the mindless snacking, you’ve said. If only I could stop bingeing, I’d be able to maintain my weight, you’ve said.

It’s not you, darling. It’s the diet or the restriction.

We’ve been programmed to think of food as the enemy. Sugar is a drug, right? Not so much; science hasn’t proven that. I would argue “sugar addiction” is way less about sugar than it is about our relationship to sugar. I can eat a pack of gummy bears and not eat candy for weeks, so claiming it’s on par with cocaine is probably not all that apt.

Others claim we burn through glucose (carbohydrates) before fat because sugar’s toxic to our bodies, but if it’s so toxic, why is it that our bodies convert excess amino acids (protein) into glucose? You can’t look anywhere without being warned of dramatic food-related dangers. Salt is bad for our kidneys and blood pressure, steak is bad for our hearts — oh wait, just deli meat!, milk gives us acne, eggs elevate cholesterol, and bread makes us fat. Am I missing anything? Hyper caloric foods, like pizza and cheeseburgers, are blamed for “the obesity epidemic”. We live in an obsegenic environment! crusaders cry out.

But we don’t only overeat when there’s an abundance of food. We also overeat in response to perceived or real food scarcity. I mean, just check out the Ancel Keys starvation study in Minnesota between 1944-45. Are we eating more “junk foods” because we have easy access to them, or are we eating more because we’re not suppose to? Because we live in a Puritanical society hyper fixated on “clean eating”, cleanses, detoxification, and the general holiness or lack thereof of foods?

Is a child more likely to eat all the cookies because they’re there, or because you’ve said, “Hey, look at all those cookies! But don’t eat any”?

If “thin” is the crack we’re all after, then diets are the dealers. 

Now, my fridge doesn’t work. The third shelf freezes everything and the first shelf remains at room temperature. We’ve spent over $600 on repairs and no one can fix it. Is this my fault? No. The fridge is clearly a lemon. Someone probably knew it was a lemon when it was sold to us at a heavily discounted price. We suspected it was a lemon the first time we needed it repaired. No amount of work will not make the fridge a lemon. But I can either accept that it’s a lemon and get myself a new fridge — one that makes good on its promises — or I can keep trying to get this thing to work by pouring more money into it, trying to make lemonade out of something that has no juice.

So what does this have to do with your inability to stop eating at night? Everything, my love, because through your actions — trying to “be good” all day in accordance with standards set by diet culture — you’re creating the framework to support disordered eating, over-eating, and late night, eat-everything-in-sight binges. 

In other words, by not eating what you want, when you want — restricting and depriving — you are setting yourself up for late night binge eating. You can’t stop the binge eating at night because you haven’t quit the very behaviours that cause it.

So how do you quit?

1 | Let go of the pressure to “be good” during the day. 

Release the pressure to “be good” at all. Does eating Doritos make you a mean person? Is having a slice of pizza at lunch on the same level as burning down an orphanage? Part of developing an awesome relationship with food requires you to stop giving food so much power over your identity. You are not your food choices. You are not better for eating a kale salad or worse for eating ice cream; you are not more beautiful, accepted, successful, loved, intelligent, or brave for having a green smoothie, and not uglier, less acceptable, a failure, a loser, or stupid for eating an egg sandwich with cheese and bacon.

I know health is more or less marketed this way (look at that gorgeous blonde with the green smoothie cycling on the beach!) and pizza’s image isn’t nearly as sexy, but it’s important to distinguish between what is advertising and what is reality. Between what is health and what is weight obsession. Between what is fact and what is fiction.

When you stop trying to control and police your food choices and allow your eating decisions to arise naturally, you’ll find you instinctively choose a variety of foods. And about “pizza Friday”, cheat meals, and cheat days? They’re other forms of restriction. Sometimes you’ll want a cheeseburger on a Wednesday and a chicken salad on a Saturday. Sometimes you’ll crave carrot sticks when others are eating cake. Sometimes you’ll want two slices of cake when others crave carrots. This is all part of normal eating. This is step one to stop overeating at night or feeling like you have no ownership over your food intake.

2 | Allow the satisfaction factor to take the lead. I also want you to consider how satisfying your food choices currently are. Do you eat foods you enjoy, or do you choose them based exclusively on their alleged health properties? Do you allow magazines to determine your meal plan, or do you make recipes that sound good to you? This is a big part of making peace with compulsive, intense nighttime eating.

Years ago, I would agonize over my lunch choices. I limited myself to approved foods for a long time (the list was pretty short at one point.) Now I genuinely eat what sounds the most satisfying to me. This question actually leads me to eat all kinds of foods. Now, I don’t necessarily eat exactly what I want all the time due to things like availability and — let’s face it — budget, but I find keeping ingredients I love around the house helps a lot. You can make a pot of lentil soup a bit more satisfying by topping it with feta’s cheese, avocado, or adding in a couple sausage links; a can of chickpeas can be rinsed, plated, and adorned with Kalamata olives, pickled onions, arugula, and a bright salad dressing. Instead of focusing on whether something is healthy or unhealthy, ask yourself: is this what I want? Does this meal look delicious? It requires a bit of a shift in thinking, but by prioritizing satisfaction over fat burning properties/etc, you’ll be less ravenous and unsatisfied in the evening because you ate delicious foods all day long.

3 | Question why you feel some foods are off-limits and ‘forbidden’. Which foods make you feel like you’re “being bad”? Where do these beliefs originate? What fears are they masking? Maybe you associate “clean” foods, like salads, smoothies, and fish as “being good”, and ice cream, cookies, and potato chips as “being bad.” Chances are good that you eat your “good” foods during the day and can’t resist “bad” foods in the evening.

Why can’t you eat pizza during the day?

What’s wrong with having a cheeseburger for lunch?

What’s wrong with eating a big plate of carbs?

Why do you believe red meat is unhealthy?

Where did you learn these things from?

A big part of the reason you are emotionally eating at night is because you are emotionally eating during the day. Usually we associate “emotional eating” with an empty bag of potato chips or pint of ice cream, but emotional eating has nothing to do with your food choices and everything to do with your habits and behaviours around your food choices. You are eating to “be good.” You are eating to satisfy the rules. You are eating for weight loss or weight maintenance. You are following your diet to a T. You are completing the steps your “health guidelines” ask of you to manifest the unspoken promise of all diets: that if you just follow the rules like a good student, everything will be better. You’ll have an amazing relationship, look stellar in all of your clothes, have better friendships, and be more interesting. Except none of this will be true, because defying your natural programming — your physiology — requires you to focus only on your exercise and food consumption to the exclusion of all the other facets of your life. Diets don’t make you interesting; a word where the first three letters spell “die” should be your first clue.

4 | Eat enough during the day. Whenever someone tells me they can’t stop overeating at night, I immediately suspect they’re under-eating during the day. I know you’ve been taught to “watch what you eat”, to control your portions, show some class A “willpower” (still not sure what this is), and avoid overeating during the day. But you know what? Your body needs calories, otherwise known as energy! And chances are good that it will find a way to get what it needs even if you don’t freely offer it up. 

All of this means that if you don’t eat enough during the day, the kitchen will be totally irresistible. Those crackers that once looked pretty benign now sound damn good. You won’t just want one or two cookies; you’ll want the whole box. You’ll feel like maybe you need a kitchen that works a bit like Netflix and offers up food on demand (actually, this sounds kind of awesome…).

Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Eat! How much? Try to tune in to when you’re hungry. Understand your hunger has many different manifestations not limited to stomach growling. Eat. This is difficult for a lot of people and takes some time, especially if you’ve been chronic dieting or restricting, so go easy on yourself. Be patient. But the most important takeaway here is this: eating is vital to life. Food is vital to life. Eat throughout the day. Practice eating until it feels like second nature, until your intuition kicks in and says, hey, enough of that, or hey, I need more.

5 | Ask yourself what you need to feel calm.

Without realizing it, sometimes we eat to calm ourselves. We feel anxious about something or other, and eat for comfort. Of course, food can’t really comfort us — not in the way we probably need, deep down.

I don’t see anything wrong with eating pizza (or whatever you love!) after a stressful day. Food is an easy, immediate coping mechanism, and frankly, part of what it means to be a human being living in the real world. But that said, you’re going to want to find ways to cope with stress and anxiety — any negative, “out of your comfort zone” feelings — outside of food.

What do you need to feel calm? Part of releasing my attachment to food and body obsession meant I had a lot more time for hobbies and interests, like book club, reading, writing, and watching Sex and the City on repeat. I’m someone who loves yoga on a Sunday, looks forward to morning workouts, enjoys chilling in bed at night watching a movie, and having wine with friends. It has all meant being more present and engaged. That will look different for you, but I encourage you to seek it out. What can you add to your life? How much time will leading an intuitive lifestyle free up for other things?

There is so much more to life than food. I’m hoping through this series that I can help you to explore and enjoy all of it.

Did you experience an “aha” moment reading this? Which tip resonates with you the most?

If you’d like help normalizing your night eating, I offer a special service — the Habits & Behaviours Audit — to help you to make peace with food and neutralize attachments to power and fear foods. Check it out by clicking here

how to stop eating at night

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