I’m sharing the 4 strategies that helped me finally overcome my late night snacking habit after years of trying and failing to break the it.
Have you ever felt powerless against your most pervasive habits? Certain behaviors are so ingrained in everyday life that it feels like you “wake up” mid-habit, before you can stop yourself. It’s a cycle of resolutions, moments of weakness and guilt.
At least that’s how I felt about my late night snacking. Every night after dinner I’d need to have some kind of snack. I wasn’t hungry, however the cravings were so intense. I’d feel anxious before I had my snack and guilty after.
What my Late Night Snacking Looked Like
Most nights, for dinner I’d have some kind of salad. They’d satisfy my hunger (mostly) but never my cravings. I’d purposefully under eat at dinner, and ignore savory cravings, because I knew I’d be having a late night snack. About and hour after dinner, I’d usually have a bowl of granola with almond butter and chocolate while I watched Netflix in bed. Sometimes I’d have a second snack if I still wasn’t satisfied and I rarely was.
It wasn’t the food, or even the time of day that was unhealthy for me, instead the habit itself brought me so much more anxiety, frustration and guilt than it did any joy. I didn’t know why I felt like I needed this food when I really didn’t want it.
If I had been able to enjoy a bowl of ice cream, a handful of popcorn, or some good chocolate, after dinner and call it a night without guilt and frustration then I’d have been fine. Instead, I’d obsess over this one snack. What it was going to be, how I was going to eat it, how I didn’t want it, but still craved it. I’d feel guilty if I had it and deprived if I didn’t. When it was over I was never satisfied. I’d want something else or regret having anything at all.
If you’ve ever struggled in your relationship with food you know how relentless the thoughts can be. On top of those, you feel ashamed that your mind is consumed by thoughts of food to begin with.
I’d tried so many times to quit my late night snacking habit. It would work for about a week. Maybe two if I was on a streak. However, no strategy stuck. Brushing teeth, only eating in the kitchen, trying to go to bed earlier.
As many times as I have tried to break this habit nothing worked until this spring, when ironically I stopped trying so hard to break the habit.
One event helped simultaneously fill me with joy, distract me from cravings and balance out my overworked night time routine. I met my current boyfriend.
But before you read further, please understand that I am by no means saying you need to be dating someone or even that dating someone is the answer at all. Instead, I’ve been able to reflect on what has changed over the last six months that has stopped the late night eating. Examining my new behaviors and attitudes helped me unlock 4 key truths about what stopped my night time eating, none of which actually have anything do with being in a relationship.
1.) Get Real About Feelings and Cravings at Night – Hint: it’s not about the food
Maybe it’s balance, maybe it’s stress relief, maybe it’s coping with some other buried emotion, but we use food (often unconsciously) to try and handle way more than physical hunger. When I was in college and I had to stay up extra late to study or finish papers and projects I’d always binge on sugary snack to help me keep going. The next day I’d restrict because I felt guilty and the cycle would continue. I used food as a coping mechanism to deal with stress.
When you use food for coping or control you don’t always realize what you’re doing. For me personally, I felt, what I thought was, hungry even if I had just eaten. It was this bizarre full-hungry, unsatisfied feeling. I’m sure if I had the most delicious chocolate chip peanut butter cookie of all time (favorite dessert) that I’d still feel it. That’s because I wasn’t dealing with food, I was dealing with deeper underlying emotions. The later I stayed up, especially past 10/11pm the more I felt it.
In the past 6 months, without totally realizing it, I’ve tackled a lot of my issues with balancing work and pleasure. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but by depriving myself of free time, just to enjoy life I was feeling physically deprived as well.
Your internal cravings will definitely vary, but if you’re stuck in the late night snack trap like I’ve been, it’s so important to step back and give your emotional health a check up.
2.) Eat Enough Throughout the Day, Mindfully
It really wasn’t until I stopped eating my late night snack that I realized I wasn’t eating enough during the day, especially at dinner. Despite how simple it sounds, understanding your hunger, your cravings and what your body needs is not easy, especially after you’ve struggled with any kind of disordered eating.
I don’t have a quick and easy tip for how you can figure out what your body needs. No one knows that but you. Even then, aligning your body and mind is a process of trial and error and a personal journey.
What worked for me:
This might sound a little strange, maybe counter intuitive, but the less I tried to eat the right thing, the closer I got to feeding myself what my body needed and the less cravings I had. Rather than eat a salad for the 4th time in a row, because that’s what I thought I needed, I started enjoying caprese sandwiches on fresh ciabatta bread. Some days I’d eat the whole sandwich, other days I’d only need half. Some days I’d pack a salad or a veggie bowl, while some days I’d have a grilled cheese and tomato soup and a cookie on the side. Whatever I was eating, was what I really wanted that day. When I was done, I was happy. I didn’t feel guilty or deprived. The key was I never judged a craving. Some weeks I had no appetite while others, I couldn’t get enough.
It was scary to start eating this way at first. Truly. For so long I had so much guilty around pasta, bread, dairy, all these foods that were demonized. However, when I wasn’t using food to cure deeper non food cravings, these foods started just being food again. Pasta was something that used to give me so much anxiety and now I eat it at least 2 or 3 nights a week. I haven’t gained a pound (not that it really matters). In fact, I think the last time I checked I’d lost 5 lbs since early spring.
At night I’d make dinners with my family or my boyfriend. Rather than eat them alone at my computer (like I’d been doing for years) I enjoyed my food with company. Not only was I satisfying hunger, I was satisfying my cravings for social interaction.
As time went on, the less and less I wanted to eat at night. Rather than feeling like I was missing out on the one time I could indulge in what I was craving, I felt at peace knowing tomorrow I could eat whatever I wanted. That might be a green juice, it might be a peanut butter chocolate chip cookie.
3.) Take Away Triggers (aka Late night Instagram)
Whether or not you’re hungry, scrolling through Instagram and Pinterest at 9pm when your feed is filled with decadent desserts is going to trigger your cravings. There would be nights I’d be in bed, ready to go to sleep and I’d scroll through Instagram one more time. I’d see everyone’s snacks and recipes and desserts and instantly crave more. I’d either cave in, eat more and feel guilty or I’d feel unsatisfied and slightly unsettled.
Now I try not to engage in social media other than replying to comments after dinner. Instead, I’m spending time with my boyfriend, reading, relaxing or just plain old getting to sleep early. Without the barrage of triggers I don’t feel like I’m missing out.
I’ve also noticed that since eating more intuitively during the day, I’m not as effected by craving triggers. I can see a delicious looking dessert and have no desire to eat it.
4.) Replace the Habit with a Ritual you LOVE
A big part of breaking a habit that you no longer want, is being able to replace it with something more positive that you enjoy more than the old habit. If your night eating is something unhealthy that you want to change, ask yourself, what’s a nightly habit that would add to my health and happiness? Not just something you think you should do, but something that would bring you joy.
Personally, a lot of my nightly routine now involves spending time with other people and or truly relaxing. I love lighting candles, listening to audio books or podcasts, doodling/sketching, reading. These activities are ones that capture my full attention. I don’t get distracted like I do on my phone. Being able to turn off and relax has helped so much with cravings. I’m feeding my soul in other ways. Instead of sugar, I crave these stress reducing activities.
I’ve held back on talking about this habit because for a long time it was a source of shame. However I know I’m definitely not alone. It wasn’t until my emotional cravings were fed and I ate more intuitively throughout the day, that I’ve been able to quiet the need to eat after dinner. Once in a while I’ll share a pack of dark chocolate justin’s peanut butter cups (the flippin’ best), but it never feels like I need it. These after dinner treats feel remarkably different.