I’ve talked before about how I used to really struggle with binge eating, often devouring entire bags of popcorn, candy, cookies, and more in one sitting until I felt sick and terrible about myself.
Thankfully, due to a much healthier outlook on food and treating food as fuel rather than as the enemy, I’ve pretty much stopped any form of binging. Instead I focus on fueling my body with nutritious whole foods, in filling, yet reasonable amounts.
In fact, during the day, I eat fairly intuitively, giving my body what it craves (usually vegetables, some protein, and healthy carbs) in the right amounts based on my activity level for that day. I rarely even have cravings for sweets during the daytime, and feel the most energized and focused when I eat smaller, nutrient-packed meals every three hours or so.
But at night, it’s a whole different story.
I usually eat dinner at 6 or 7pm, what most people think should be the last meal of the day. But what inevitably happens is that even after I’m finished with dinner, I’m not quite satisfied.
Sometimes it starts immediately after dinner, where I need something sweet right away. And sometimes it’s more like a couple of hours later, where all of a sudden it’s 8 or 9pm and I’m absolutely famished.
So what happens when I don’t act smart when these moments hit? I snack. And snack. And snack. Until I inevitably feel overfull, bloated, and slightly sick from too much (usually not-so-healthy) food.
Sound familiar at all?
Overeating at Night: Why We Do It
Overeating at night is actually extremely normal, and is usually due to our willpower being diminished throughout the day.
It works like this: if you make a conscious decision to avoid eating a cookie earlier in the day, yet you have a stressful day full of lots of difficult decisions, by the end of the day your willpower tends to be pretty depleted. And this is exactly the time you’re most likely to just say screw it—and eat that cookie (or the entire bag of cookies).
And although I still succumb to overeating at night every once in a while, I’ve learned strategies throughout the years that these days make it so I mostly avoid it.
Here’s my best advice on how not to gorge yourself at night:
Eat Enough During the Day
This is one of my biggest past mistakes: to eat as little as possible throughout the day and essentially “save” my calories for nighttime since I knew I would be the hungriest at night.
But this strategy is a huge mistake and almost certainly will cause you to overeat.
Why? Because your body actually needs those calories throughout the day to stay focused, to fuel your workouts, to do fun activities with your family or friends, play with your kids, or whatever it is you’re doing that day. Since most of us are more active during the daytime, we’ll actually be working those calories off as the day goes on.
In contrast, since most of us are less active at night, usually doing more sedentary things like watching TV, reading, or generally just relaxing, we just don’t need as many calories at night.
What’s more, if you don’t eat enough during the day, you’ll naturally be hungrier at night—meaning you will be that much likely to gorge yourself on both healthy—and unhealthy—foods. Eating enough earlier in the day will naturally curb your appetite later on.
So don’t skimp on breakfast, lunch, or snacks throughout the day just so you can have a larger dinner and post-dinner snacks. It will backfire!
Have a Plan
There’s plenty of debate in the health and fitness world about whether it makes any sense to count calories or not. I personally do count calories, because it allows me to plan out my food for the day and helps me to better hit my macronutrient levels.
Counting calories certainly doesn’t work for everyone though, so if that’s you, you can still make an effort to plan out your food for the day without getting overly concerned with the details.
The best way to start? Pay attention to your hunger levels and cravings throughout the day, then just start planning around that.
Does a bigger breakfast help you get through the morning easier? Plan that in.
Does adding some healthy fats to your mid-morning snack mean you won’t be as famished at lunch? Plan for it, and don’t forget to bring it to work (or wherever) with you.
Do you always want dessert post-dinner? You don’t need to avoid all sweets—just know that after dinner you’ll be able to have some chocolate, a little ice cream, or yes, even a cookie here and there. All you have to do is make some slight adjustments throughout the day to give yourself room for that treat you know you’ll eat anyway.
This is where counting calories can come in handy at times, because it allows you to see exactly what you’re eating that day. But you can also do some simple meal planning by writing down a quick list of all the meals and snacks you’re going to be eating throughout the day.
That way you don’t feel guilty about that snack, or treat, or whatever it is you’re eating, and since you’ve planned well and most likely won’t be as hungry because you’ve been eating enough, you’ll be much less likely to binge eat later on when your willpower is at its lowest point.
Make an Actual Meal if You’re Hungry
There’s no way around it: sometimes you’re just actually really hungry at night, even after a good dinner.
This happens to me maybe every week or two, and I’ll admit I still get thrown off by it at times. I’ll try and eat a little snack, but I can usually tell pretty much right away that it won’t be enough. And even though I’ve planned well and eaten well throughout the day, I’m still just so hungry on days like these.
Getting really hungry at night could be due to several different things, including being more active throughout the day, recovering from an injury or overtraining (your body requires more calories to help repair itself when you’re injured or trained too much), constant undereating, not getting enough sleep, eating too small of a dinner, etc.
This is when you’re the most likely to binge eat unhealthy foods—because you don’t think you should really be eating anything else at night, you’ll just snack and snack until you feel sick and guilty about all the food you’ve eaten.
Yet this is the exact time when you really need to start trying to listen to your body—because what it’s asking for is real food. Ideally at this point you’d make something quick and easy that is enough to fill you up without going overboard, such as:
- Scrambled eggs + whole wheat toast
- Cottage cheese + fruit
- Avocado toast
- Low sugar granola + yogurt
- A protein or green smoothie
- Protein pancakes
All of these meals are quick to make and will help to fuel your body and aid in recovery while making it much less likely you’ll binge on unhealthier foods.
Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourself
These strategies have played a huge role in helping me to avoid binge eating at night, and will undoubtedly make a difference if you start to implement them.
But if you mess up, don’t be too hard on yourself.
There are times I do everything right, yet I still get a snack attack at night and want to eat everything in sight. This will happen to you, too.
In the past when this would happen, I would wake up feeling incredibly guilty and hate myself for overeating. I would even try and eat little to nothing the next day to make up for the extra calories from the night before, which would end up negatively affecting my workouts, focus, and energy levels.
Now, I accept that it was just one night, and make an effort to eat healthy for the rest of the day.
Because healthy eating is a lifestyle, not a short-term diet—and a single night of overeating isn’t going to make as big of a difference as you might think.