Trigger warning- This blog post briefly discusses topics related to skipping meals and restricting calories. It may be triggering for those with disordered eating or an eating disorder.
*Disclaimer- The information in this post is meant for educational and entertainment purposes only. It is not intended for the diagnosis of disordered eating or an eating disorder. You should always contact your attending clinicians about your unique case.
It happened again. You spent the entire evening snacking on whatever you could find, leaving you with an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame. You tried to stop snacking. You practically begged yourself to stop eating. But before you knew it, you had powered through a bag of chips, a row of cookies, and a bowl of fruit. Now, you’re lying in bed, obsessing over the number of calories you ate in a span of a few hours. All you can think about is what you’re going to do to make up those calories tomorrow.
What is even more frustrating is that this doesn’t just happen just once a week- rather multiple times per week for the last few years. At this point, you no longer trust yourself around your favorite foods. And why would you? Whenever you bring them into your home, you have completely eaten them in a day or two. This is proof that you need to try harder to develop a lot more self-control and willpower with your diet.
But what if it’s not about self-control or willpower?
What if you could learn to trust yourself around food again?
How liberating would that feel?
One of the first steps in regaining this trust is figuring out what might be causing your late-night snacking. The following are just a few of the possible reasons why you may feel out-of-control around food at night.
1. You’re skipping meals during the day.
There might be a couple of reasons why you are skipping meals throughout the day. Maybe you’re busy and feel like you don’t have the time to eat a meal. Maybe you’ve never been a “breakfast eater”, so eating breakfast is not in your normal routine. Or maybe you’re trying to make up for consuming “too many” calories the day before. No matter your reason, skipping meals makes it more challenging to provide your body with the consistent amount of energy it needs to fuel your daily activities. So by the end of the day, it is basically yelling at you for more food through the form of cravings. In fact, it is completely normal to reach for foods like sweets, chips, and crackers because they’re easy for your body to break down- meaning it quickly gets the energy that it needs.
2. You’re not eating enough calories throughout the day.
Your body needs a certain amount of energy to do your daily activities. Think of your body as like car for a second. When your car is low on gas, the warning light goes off letting you know that it needs more gas. If it completely uses up all of the gas in the tank, it stops working. In order to have a functioning car to get you places, you have to give it enough fuel. Your body acts in a very similar way. When you’re low on energy (aka calories from food), your body warns you by using your hunger signals. If you continue to ignore those hunger signals, your body will eventually run out of energy. This can cause you to binge in the evening, because your body is sending you every warning signal possible to let you know it needs fuel.
3. Your diet is too restrictive.
The act of eating food is more than just for fueling your body with energy. It is also meant to be an enjoyable experience. When we eat food, it has the ability to bring back happy memories (like how your grandma’s pie makes you immediately think of Thanksgiving dinners with your family). Food is such a huge part of culture and social interactions. When your diet is too restrictive or limiting, you may lose the joy of eating. Likewise, restrictive diets can lead to “f*** it eating”. If you eat one “bad” thing, you might think, “F*** it, I already messed up. I am just going to eat whatever I want to tonight,” leading to a night of continuous snacking.
4. You’re physically active (especially after dinner).
Your level of physical activity can influence how hungry you feel throughout the day (and even the following day). Your body stores energy as a way to make sure you have enough fuel for physical activity. Once you have used that energy up (whether that is through your daily activities or through intentional movement like dancing), your body needs to replenish those energy stores again. This means you need to eat more food. So even if you just ate dinner, chances are you will feel hungry again if you decide to go for a walk later that evening. Likewise, if you go for a long hike on Sunday, you might feel a lot hungrier than normal on Monday
5. You’re using food to cope with emotions.
Many people use food to cope with their emotions. It is a completely normal response to stressful, emotional, or even boring situations. This is because food can be incredibly comforting. Certain foods can bring back happier memories, helping to alleviate or reduce any unwanted emotion you’re trying to get rid of by eating. Before beating yourself up for “emotional eating”, remind yourself that it is a normal response. You are not doing anything wrong nor are you a “bad” person for emotionally eating.
6. You might have an eating disorder.
Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is a REAL eating disorder. In fact, it is more common than anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa combined. Many individuals with BED tend to eat larger amounts of food quickly until uncomfortably full in a short period of time (often in secret). They may even feel shame, guilt, or disgust following a binge. If you believe you have disordered eating or an eating disorder, reach out to one of your attending clinicians. If you do not feel comfortable doing so or need to speak to someone immediately, you can always contact the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) Helpline. You do not have to deal with it alone.
There are many reasons why you might be finding yourself snacking late at night. Chances are, it does not have to do with your “lack of” self-control or willpower. Rather, there is probably something different at play. Understanding your reason(s) for snacking late at night can help you change the way you view your relationship with food and possibly your body, too.