Why We Snack Endlessly At Night
This is one of those things that most people can relate to at one time or another. And it’s honestly no big deal if it’s an occasional thing that happens. But if this is a pattern for you and it’s happening on a regular basis, and you feel frustrated about it, then it makes sense to explore what’s going on.
I want you to imagine yourself taking your judgment cap off, and putting your scientist cap on. The judgment cap is doing nothing but making you feel like crap when you’re telling yourself, “I can’t believe I did this again, I’m such a loser and I have no willpower. I’m going to keep gaining weight if I do this….blah, blah blah.” That inner critic is often on loop inside our heads when we feel bad about how we’ve been eating, and it doesn’t help us to make lasting behavior change.
Just ask Brene Brown – shame prevents us from learning and growing. It keeps us stuck in that dark corner in our heads where we dwell on how bad we are and what a failure we are. That’s where most people get stuck in this nighttime snacking cycle. They keep doing it over and over, and feeling shame about it, beating themselves up, and then doing it again the next night.
When we can take off that judgment hat and put on our scientist hat it allows us to shift to curiosity. A scientist isn’t judging the data. They are gathering the data and analyzing it, and making decisions based on the data. We get so swept up in how we feel about what we’re eating, and how much we’re eating, and how much we weigh…and we lose sight of the data that could help us make different decisions.
So with your scientist cap on, let’s look at the 5 variables that might be leading you to snack endlessly at night.
5 Variables That Can Lead to Endless Snacking At Night
Variable #1: Not eating enough during the day.
This could be because you’re not eating enough earlier in the day and your body is trying to get caught up on what it needs. You might be thinking, “Katy that’s not me. I’m absolutely eating enough during the day.” But ARE you? Because most people need more food than they think they do. Some people are intentionally restricting during the day and are limiting their calories, or their carbs, or they’re avoiding snacking, or they’re skipping breakfast or lunch to save up calories for later or to try and create a calorie deficit to lose weight. This backfires when your body becomes desperate for food, which often occurs in the evening.
Some other reasons that are common for people to undereat during the day are things like being distracted and losing track of time and forgetting to eat. Or sometimes medications can interfere with appetite and people will forget to eat because they don’t feel hungry. This is especially common for people with ADHD and the medications used to treat it. In this case, I usually recommend setting alarms to remember to eat at regular intervals.
A couple other scenarios where people aren’t eating enough during the day are intermittent fasting because of the schedule they’re following and when they’re allowing themselves to eat. I also see this accidental under fueling in athletes or people who exercise a lot. Exercise can zap our appetite, especially intense exercise, and sometimes highly active people will unintentionally not fuel enough to support their activity level.
So there are a lot of reasons, both intentional (i.e. dieting) and unintentional (ADHD, exercise) that people will not eat enough during the day. And this is a set up for wanting to snack a lot in the evening.
One of my students recently was having a pretty big evening snack every night. She’d start out eating one thing, wouldn’t feel satisfied, so she’d move onto another thing and another. Sometimes it even felt like a binge. And she genuinely didn’t think she was restricting during the day, at least not on purpose.
But as we took a look at what she was eating most days, it was a protein shake for breakfast, sometimes with a piece of toast, and often a salad or a light meal for lunch, maybe a small snack in the afternoon and then a decent sized dinner that usually consisted of a meat, some type of grain or starch for a carb, and a veggie. And she felt pretty full after her dinner, so she couldn’t figure out why she wanted to snack and snack at night. As we looked at what she was eating compared to what her body nutritionally and metabolically needed, it wasn’t enough. So the nighttime snacking was her body’s way of getting what it needed.
We experimented with distributing her food intake more evenly throughout the entire day so that it wasn’t lopsided where most of it was at dinner and beyond, and guess what? She was able to have a small nighttime snack and felt totally satisfied and sometimes didn’t even want it anymore. This is a good example of someone who wasn’t restricting on purpose, she wasn’t intentionally depriving herself of the foods she liked, and she felt like she was eating enough during the day – but her body was telling us that wasn’t the case.
For me as a dietitian and a coach, I can usually see right away when someone isn’t eating enough throughout the day. And that’s the benefit of working with a dietitian who is trained in this area because as the outsider looking in I can often see things in people that they can’t see in themselves because it’s that thing where we can’t see the forest through the trees. It’s hard to see our own stuff because we’re in it all day everyday.
I also have a good sense of what a person’s body needs nutritionally and calorically because that’s what I help people with all day everyday, and I can help people get in touch with what their bodies truly need, which is hard to figure out on our own. (And as a side note, let me just encourage you NOT to try and rely on those macro or calorie calculators on the internet. Those are a big part of the reason that a lot of people end up undereating because they’ll be given a calorie or macro goal that’s WAY below what their body needs, and it either ends up suppressing their metabolism and/or setting them up for overeating, especially at night.)
Variable #2: Missing out on one or more of the macronutrients
Along similar lines, missing out on one or more of the macronutrients can set you up for nighttime snacking or for overeating or binging. The macronutrients are carbohydrate, protein and fat. These are the nutrients that provide energy to your body in the form of calories. That’s all a calorie is – a unit of energy for your body, and calories come from the molecules of carb, protein and fat in your food. The micronutrients are your vitamins and minerals, and they obviously do important things too but they don’t provide literal energy because they don’t give us calories.
So when I’m looking at whether someone is eating enough, I’m looking at not just their total food and calorie intake, I’m also looking at their macronutrient intake. Because if you’re low on one or more of the macronutrients, you are bound to end up overeating at some point, and this often plays out with snacking.
If you’re avoiding carbs, chances are the snack foods you’re going to find yourself wanting are carbs. Your body NEEDS carbs in order to function properly. Carbs are meant to be our body’s primary fuel source in terms of calories. Your brain alone needs over 100 grams of carbs per day. Yes, your body can get by for periods of time with very little carbohydrate, which is what people on low carb and keto diets are doing, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us or that it’s sustainable. It just means that your body has backup mechanisms in place to compensate when you’re not eating enough carbs.
So in our example earlier with my student who was doing a protein shake for breakfast and a salad for lunch, she was barely getting any carbs during the day. And what kind of snack foods do you think she wanted at night? She was going for the crackers, popcorn, candy, cookies, and carbohydrate-rich foods like that. There’s nothing wrong with these foods, I’m just looking at them in terms of what they break down into within your body because that’s how your body is experiencing them.
Now let’s say someone is low in protein or fat as macronutrients. The problem with that is that those are the macronutrients that give us satiety. They tell our brain to turn off our hunger for a while. Protein and fat break down more slowly in our digestive system, and therefore they stick with us longer. So you want to make sure that you’re getting a decent amount of foods that contain protein and fat at your meals and snacks too. It’s easy to overlook protein at snacks because a lot of our common snack foods are carbohydrate-based like crackers, chips, fruit, pretzels, granola bars, and things like that. So if we can pair those foods with a food higher in protein and/or fat such as peanut butter, almonds or cheese, then we get a good combo that will break down more slowly and keep us satisfied longer.
How do you know if you’re getting enough carb, protein and fat? I don’t have a magical number I can give you here because that’s going to be highly individualized for each person. If you want some help figuring out what your body needs, feel free to reach out and we can look at doing a 1:1 intensive, which is a coaching session where we do a deep dive on something you’re interested in working on, and it’s perfect for this type of thing where you’re trying to listen to your body and make peace with food, but you might also want to ballpark have an idea of what your body needs nutritionally so you can see if you’re giving your body the nourishment that it needs. Reach out to me via email or DM if you’re interested in this and I can share more.
The moral of the story here is that even if you’re eating enough overall calories, if you are low on any of the macronutrients your eating is kind of lopsided and this may be contributing to feeling like you want to keep snacking and snacking at night.
Variable #3: Emotional avoidance
This is one of the biggest ones that I see. For people who are busy during the day with working, or taking care of the kids, or going to school, the evening is when things settle down, and you’re ready to unwind and relax. You’re done with your tasks for the day, and you’re at home and it’s quiet…and that’s when the urge to snack kicks in.
You might be hungry when you first start eating, and you might not be. The urge to eat when you’re not hungry, or to keep eating past the point of comfortable fullness is a signal that something is going on emotionally.
Sometimes people are using food to cope with uncomfortable emotions like loneliness. That’s a big one for people who live alone. At night the loneliness becomes more apparent because they don’t have the daytime distractions. They might wish they had a partner or friends they could spend time with in the evening, or places to go and fun things to do.
The snacking can become a way to cope with emotions, to numb emotions, to soothe emotions, or to avoid emotions. And sure, there are times that we eat in response to emotions and it’s totally fine and normal. Let’s remember that we ALL do that sometimes. But this type of repetitive and compulsive type of snacking is more about emotional avoidance, and not letting yourself look at your underlying needs.
If you never address those feelings and needs outside of food, you’re likely to keep finding yourself in this situation. This is part of the problem with dieting and trying to “be good” with food. Not only does it create biological deprivation that backfires, but it also creates emotional avoidance and if you aren’t getting your needs met or your feelings addressed outside of food, you’re probably going to keep finding yourself staring at an empty bowl or snack package at the end of the night over and over.
Think of your feelings like the warning light on the dashboard of your car. They’re there to signal you to look at something that’s going on and to address it. Covering up the warning light doesn’t make the problem go away. You’ve got to get curious about what is going on, and one of the best ways to do this is to check in with your body and if you’re not hungry, don’t eat the snack. Or if you are hungry, eat a small snack until you are satiated, and then sit with the feelings. I highly recommend journaling and just doing a brain dump of what’s coming up for you. You might be surprised what comes out on paper when the food and snacking aren’t distracting you from your feelings.
Variable #4: Mental restriction
This one is sneaky, because with mental restriction it can play out in many ways. Mental restriction means that you’re not necessarily undereating, and you’re not avoiding any particular foods, but you’re still mentally feeling judgment, shame or guilt about your eating.
One of my students in a Non-Diet Academy cohort a while back was really hung up on the idea that snacking was bad. She had held onto this belief for SO long because one of the diets that she had done off and on for many years preached 3 meals per day, no snacking allowed. She internalized the message that snacking is bad. So every time she ate a snack she felt a little guilty, even if she knew she was hungry and she was responding to her hunger. What this led to is rebelling against the rule about snacking and doing a ton of snacking in the evening. It took a lot of mindset work to unlearn the “snacking is bad” rule, and to truly start to believe that snacking was totally fine and even beneficial to her body, but she got there and last time I heard from her she was doing really well and was snacking freely without guilt, and the snacking in the evening wasn’t an issue anymore.
Another form of mental restriction is our Wellness Woo from today which was that myth that eating past 8pm is bad for you. Sometimes people feel guilty for eating past a certain time, and then once they’ve broken the rule they feel like, “What the heck, I’ve already blown it so I might as well keep going.”
Mental restriction also plays out with thinking of food as good/bad or healthy/unhealthy. We often tell ourselves that if we have a snack it should be something “healthy” and then we feel bad if the thing we eat is “unhealthy.” Which actually just makes us want the food we’re labeling as unhealthy even more.
Mental restriction often leads to rebellion where we do the thing that we feel like we shouldn’t be doing, and then feel bad about it, which ironically just makes us want to do it even more.
Variable #5: Revenge bedtime procrastination
This when we stay up too late, knowing that we’re going to be tired the next day, but we do it anyway. And if often involves snacking.
I see this a lot in parents who want some “me time” after their kids go to bed. Heck, I’ve done this many times. I’ll be laying there in bed, watching a show on Hulu with Trevor, while scrolling my phone and before I know it, it’s past 10pm and I should have been asleep already. In fact, my ideal time to fall asleep is about 9:30.
The desire to stay up late to get our needs for relaxation and leisure met comes from having unmet needs during the day. If we spend all day taking care of other people, whether that be family members, our kids, our pets, or work, it can feel like we didn’t get to do what we wanted to do for ourselves.
And we’ll stay up late, because by golly we deserve that time to relax. And we do deserve it, no doubt about that. But we also deserve to get enough sleep.
So what happens when we’re staying up too late, is we might use food as a form of pleasure or recreation. Or it might start off as simply being hungry because it’s been several hours since dinner, so it makes sense you’d be hungry again, but then the endless snacking kicks in.
If this resonates with you, I get it. I see you. Like I said, I’m totally a sucker for staying up later than I should – especially because I am someone who needs a lot of sleep to function well, so I don’t have much wiggle room to unwind after my kids go to bed.
And staying up later than we should is a perfect storm for snacking more than you needed to.
Let’s recap those 5 variables and then we’ll talk about how to prevent endless snacking at night.
- Not eating enough during the day
- Missing out on one or more of the macronutrients
- Emotional avoidance
- Mental restriction
- Revenge bedtime procrastination
How to Prevent Endless Nighttime Snacking
The key to preventing this type of perpetual snacking is to understand why it’s happening for you in the first place. So we’ve got to get curious, and I know, I know, you’ve heard me say that a million times, but it’s true. We’ve got to tap into genuine curiosity about what’s leading you to snack like this.
I also want to point out that snacking in the evening isn’t bad. And the goal here isn’t for you to not do it. I personally eat a snack almost every night before bed. I do it because I’m hungry, I enjoy it, and it’s part of my body’s circadian hunger rhythm to want a snack at that time. The key difference is I’m not snacking endlessly, it’s not compulsive, I’m not overeating, and I’m doing it because I’m genuinely hungry. On the occasional evening that I’m not hungry, I don’t have a snack and it’s no big deal. Snacking at night isn’t bad, and I really want to reiterate that here.
The type of snacking we do want to work on is the perpetual snacking that feels compulsive, and where you are eating more than what your body needs.
I want you to do a self-audit of those 5 variables we talked about earlier and to ask yourself how you’re doing in each category. Chances are there’s more than one thing that is contributing to your constant nighttime snacking. It’s rarely as simple as just one thing.
Let me give you an example. You might be undereating throughout the earlier part of the day, subconsciously avoiding carbs, feeling guilty for eating past 8pm, and avoiding certain emotions. The trouble with using food this way is that it works. It does make us feel better, to a certain point. But it also makes us feel like crap. And that’s why we want to find other ways of addressing these needs. There’s the practical part about eating enough during the day, getting all the macronutrients. And then there’s the mental part about not judging food as good and bad, and unlearning those old dieting rules that have been engrained for so long. There’s also the emotional part about getting in touch with your needs and your feelings instead of using food to numb or avoid. You see, there’s a lot here, and that’s why this is more than just a willpower thing.
There’s not something wrong with you. I promise you that. If you struggle with this, you’re actually pretty normal. This is one of the most common struggles that I have heard over and over again in the hundreds of clients and students that I’ve worked with. And the good news is that this problem is very figureoutable as Marie Forleo would say. She wrote a great book called Everything is Figureoutable and that is so true with these food struggles. We just have to get curious, become aware, and then experiment with different solutions.
So there you have it for today’s episode. I hope you enjoyed it and that it gives you some ideas for things you can explore and work on within yourself. If you’re interested in joining the upcoming cohort of Non-Diet Academy where we get to work on these types of issues and so much more, get yourself on the waitlist by clicking here. Many of the strategies that we talked about today are things that I cover in depth inside the course, and I’ve got tools and specific strategies that we practice applying. So if you want to go deeper into these skills, the course is perfect for you. If you have any questions whatsoever, just reach out.
That’s all for now. As always, be kind and patient with yourself. We’ll talk again next week!
I covered it all in Episode 91 – Can’t Stop Snacking At Night? This Episode is for You!
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