Do you find yourself wandering around the kitchen at night or even waking from a deep sleep to eat? Well, if so, know that you’re not alone! This is a common concern that I hear from my intuitive eating coaching clients.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with intuitive eating, it’s an eating philosophy that teaches you to ditch dieting and start to listen to your body’s wisdom as it relates to hunger and fullness, cravings, movement, etc.
The other day, a woman in my Facebook group (the No-Diet Sisterhood) posted a question about her nighttime eating woes. She was concerned because she was often eating late at night and it was usually done in the absence of physical hunger. And even though intuitive eating allows unconditional permission to eat all foods without rigid rules (being mindful of known food allergies or food sensitivities), its purpose is to relearn how to tune-in and listen to the bodies intuitive cues. Observing these cues helps to minimize chronic overeating, habitual and/or bored eating, or eating because of uncomfortable emotions. I want to be clear that if you’re physically hungry, eat. However, if your nighttime eating feels uncontrollable or compulsive, and is frequently done in the absence of physical hunger, keep reading to discover some of the reasons why this may be happening.
1. Restrictive eating — Remember, diet mentality is very insidious! Even if you’re not on a “diet” per say, it’s very possible that food restriction is still happening. If you’re denying yourself the foods you desire during the day, it’s not surprising that you want to eat at night. Whenever there is food restriction, overeating or binging eventually follows. The unwanted nighttime eating could just be side effect of the food restriction.
Make the shift: Take some time before your meals/snacks to be sure you’re not denying yourself foods due to the number of calories, fats, carbs, etc. that they contain. Eat what looks appealing to you without restriction. If giving yourself permission to eat all foods is frightening to you (which it commonly is for dieters), understand that this can be a very complex issue and support is often needed to move past this. Know that the risk of not addressing this fear will keep you stuck in diet mentality indefinitely and never allow you to fully embrace intuitive eating.
2. Not eating enough — One of the more common reasons why people eat at night is because they’re not eating enough food during the day. Sometimes this is due to fear of weight gain and/or lingering diet mentality. However, it could also be because their work and/or family schedules are so hectic that it interferes with making adequate time for nourishing and consistent eating.
Make the shift: It’s important to realize that taking time to adequately nourish and fuel the body is an essential part of self-care. Believe me, I can relate. I’m a mom, wife, and an entrepreneur and know how hectic life can be sometimes. However, making a concerted effort to care for our bodies by feeding them consistently with nourishing foods is important and necessary in managing our moods, our energy and performance levels, and unwanted nighttime eating.
3. Satisfaction factor — Consider food satisfaction. When you’re eating, ask yourself if the foods you’re eating are satisfying you. If not, this could also cause nighttime foraging. Remember, while being mindful of hunger and fullness is an integral part in practicing intuitive eating, eating satisfying foods is equally important. If the foods you’re eating are leaving you wanting more (even when you’re full), this is often an indication that they aren’t satisfying you.
Make the shift: Take the time to experiment with foods to see what makes your belly happy. Maybe it’s adding more fat to a meal, like avocado or mayonnaise. Perhaps it’s eating more carbs during lunch. Whatever it is, find your satisfaction sweet spot as often as you can when deciding what to eat.
4. Stress management — While some stress is natural, excessive, consistent stress can be debilitating. The funny thing about stress is that when we’re busy and in our daily routine, we don’t often think about it too much because there isn’t time. That’s usually when we’re in autopilot mode. However, when things slow down at night, the emotions often come flooding in and often, the food follows.
Make the shift: As an act of self-care, check-in with your body during the day. See if you notice any part(s) of your body that are feeling tense (common areas are neck, shoulders, between eye brows). If your body is showing signs of stress, take a few minutes to meditate (try the free phone app Insight Timer). Sometimes just closing your eyes and taking a few cleansing breaths is enough to help clear your mind and reduce stress. You’d be surprised how this can shift the direction of your day.
5. Adequate sleep — If you’re not getting adequate sleep, this can really mess with your hunger hormones — leptin and ghrelin. As this study indicates, “Participants with short sleep had reduced leptin and elevated ghrelin. These differences in leptin and ghrelin are likely to increase appetite…”. So, lack of sleep could also be a contributing factor to nighttime eating.
Make the shift: I’ll be the first to say that sleep eludes us sometimes. It’s natural. However, if it’s consistent, it needs to be looked at more closely because the potential ramifications of poor sleep can lead to serious health issues. Taking the time to discern what may be causing the sleepless nights is key to overcoming it. A thoughtful and compassionate look at your life may be in order. Stress is often a contributing factor with sleep issues, so reviewing number four above is important.
As you can see, there could be multiple reasons why unwanted nighttime eating occurs. You could be experiencing one of these things or it could be a combination of things that are contributing to your nighttime eating. While it may take time to unravel the reasons why there is nighttime eating, the benefits of doing so are worth it. After all, feeling uncontrollable around food can cause additional stress, and no one needs that! Being self-compassionate, curious, and patient while you figure this out will go a long way in changing this behavior. Investing this time to understand what may be going on beneath the surface can seriously impact the quality of your life, including your relationship with your food and body.
Michelle Vina-Baltsas is a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Body Positive Psychotherapy professional and Certified Holistic Health Coach. She compassionately coaches her clients so they can recognize that their value isn’t tied to the number on the scale or to the size of their jeans. After suffering with an eating disorder during adolescence, followed by years of chronic yo-yo dieting and profound body hatred, she finally discovered peace with food and her body by practicing Intuitive Eating. Her life’s purpose is to educate, empower and guide women who crave to break up with dieting and embrace their bodies as they are so they can live more satisfying and purposeful lives. Join her in The No-Diet Sisterhood on Facebook or enroll in her self-paced video online course Intuitive Eating Fundamentals for guidance and support.