Do you need to stop overeating at night in order to get to your weight loss goals? A common pattern for people on a weight loss journey is to do well during the day and then overeat after dinner and into the evening hours.
For years, I would overeat at dinner, after dinner, and snack into the late night. I learned how to stop snacking after dinner and got to my goal weight. Read on for 5 helpful strategies to curb your appetite at night and get to your goal weight, too.
What is Night Eating?
There’s no one set rule for what defines overeating at night, but for many people it’s eating after dinner or eating food in the evening.
This could mean eating well past your set calories (or points for WW members) for the day, outdoing the hard work you put in during the day.
Nighttime grazing is a common habit and can be frustrating to overcome, especially when you are trying hard to lose weight and feel like you are caught in an endless cycle of working so hard during the day and then overeating during the evening hours.
Some people have the habit of waking up and eating in the middle of the night, which is a similar problem but one we will discuss in a separate post. If you wake up and eat, the guidelines at the end of this post will still be helpful to you.
The Night Overeating Cycle – My Story
For many years I was stuck in the overeating at night loop.
I would be “good” all day, sticking to my calories or WW points goal. I would eat a light breakfast (if any) and a healthy lunch.
I had a satisfying dinner planned although by then I was pretty hungry, so I struggled to stick to portions and often ate seconds.
I found myself picking at dinner’s left-overs as I put the food away, and within an hour I was back in the kitchen rooting around for a snack.
I had planned to end the day with a small portion of a treat (like a bag of popcorn or some light ice cream) but often one bag of popcorn led to 2 bags, or a first bowl of ice cream led to a second, which led to some chips and soon enough I was standing at the freezer eating handfuls of chocolate chips and wondering what happened to all my weight loss plans.
I went to bed overfull, uncomfortable, and beyond frustrated with myself. I wanted to lose weight. Why did I keep doing this?
The next morning, I had no interest in breakfast (since I’d eating an extra day’s calories just a few hours before) and the cycle continued.
For some people, they have a similar pattern but the overeating happens as soon as they step in the door from work, when they find themselves ravenous, tired, and hungry and end up eating hundreds of calories standing at the fridge with their coat on. If this is your pattern, the advice below will be just as helpful.
I stayed in this night-time overeating cycle for years, even well into my weight loss and maintaining.
By using the strategies outlined below, I was able to stop the night eating cycle and even break a 15 year weight loss plateau so I know this advice works.
Can You Eat After 6:00 PM and Still Lose Weight?
Many people create for themselves a 5:00, 6:00, 7:00, 8:00 rule that you can’t eat past this time of night. Is this necessary for weight loss?
Weight loss only happens one way and that’s eating fewer calories than you burn. I lost the first 80 pounds of my weight loss eating most of my calories at night. Your body will use the calories you give it no matter what time they come in.
However, there’s something to be said for trying to eat less in the evenings or not snacking at night. While there might be some slight metabolic benefit to not eating at night, the truth is that when you start eating at night, you have a hard time stopping with a reasonable portion because you are eating for emotional reasons.
There was a football coach who used to tell his players, “Nothing good happens after 10:00 PM” to tell them to get home from that party and get to sleep. For those of us with food and weight issues, the same can be true.
Can eating at night be healthy? Yes.
Is it healthy for you? Most times, no.
Why You Overeat at Night…and How to Stop
Here are the main reasons people overeat at night.
- Not eating breakfast (or enough breakfast)
- Daytime under-eating
- Soothing the day’s emotions with food
- Lack of structure
While not true for everyone, after my own experiences plus helping thousands of women with weight loss through this site and our Faithful Finish Lines program, I’ve seen these reasons for night eating come up over and over.
Note that while we tend to beat ourselves up over night time overeating (as if it’s a lack of willpower or character flaw), in my experience much of it can be curbed by changing the physical ways you manage food intake.
1.You Don’t Eat Breakfast (or Enough Breakfast)
Skipping breakfast is common. Some people skip breakfast because they simply aren’t hungry in the morning, they get up late and need to quickly head out the door, they are Intermittent Fasting (IF) or they figure it’s a way to save on calories.
The research is clear that eating enough calories at breakfast, including enough protein (I recommend the goal of 20-30 grams) curbs evening time overeating and binging. Almost 80% of the members of the National Weight Control Registry eat breakfast every day.
You might think that skipping or going light on breakfast doesn’t affect you, but I encourage you to experiment with eating a bigger breakfast with enough protein and see if it curbs your night-time cravings.
If you aren’t hungry in the mornings, or you are scared to use all your calories or points too soon in the day, ease into it with gradually adding more calories each week until you are at a decent amount.
WW members are especially bad about this (I know, I am one), eating a zero-3 point breakfast and saving way too many points for later in the day. Aim for 5-8 points minimum at breakfast to curb night time snacking.
Some doctors believe that eating within one hour of waking is important. This hasn’t been proven by research but there could be something to it, so experiment and see what works for you in this area.
2. Not Eating Enough During the Day
Along with skipping or eating a small breakfast, many of us under-eat during the day. You might be busy with work, kids or activities and don’t think to eat or don’t feel hungry.
You might also be saving your calories or points for a nicer sit-down dinner.
Regardless of reasons, the majority of your calories should be used during the day time hours when you need them most. Along with eating enough calories and protein at breakfast, aim for 300-400 calories or 5-10 WW points at lunch and 20-30 grams of protein.
Plan an afternoon snack of 100-200 calories and at least 10 grams of protein. If you are someone who eats the house down the minute you walk in the door after work, increase your afternoon snack or have a protein bar, shake or other quick protein-filled snack on the way home.
Yes, an afternoon snack is extra calories but trust me that if those 200 calories save you from 600-1000 later on at night, you’ve totally saved yourself.
3. Soothing the Day’s Emotions with Food
For many years I was a binge eater, compulsive over-eater, and emotional eater. I ate a lot at night as a way to calm myself down and relax at the end of a long day.
I enjoy food. Food is pleasurable. Eating is relaxing.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying food until there are negative consequences, and that’s what happened to me. I used food to calm myself to the point that I was 100 pounds overweight.
If you’ve learned to use food to calm yourself down, what happens is that it feels like nothing else is quite as calming. Because you’ve done it so many times, your brain has built those neuro pathways to be strong.
The good news is that you can build new pathways in your brain. Practice something new and your brain will adapt.
If you’ve been eating emotionally at night for many years, give yourself grace that this is going to take lots of practice to change.
Rather than being overly strict with yourself, plan to make small, consistent changes. Put off eating by just 5 minutes. Consider what you are thinking and feeling during this time. What thoughts and feelings are coming up? Are there other ways you can calm yourself down instead of with food?
Another helpful test of night-time eating is to check in and see if you are actually hungry. One way we encourage our Faithful Finish Lines members to do this is ask themselves, “Am I hungry enough to eat an apple?”
If you say yes to the apple, then maybe your body needs more food. If what you want is chips, cookies, candy, or ice cream, chances are good it’s emotional hunger.
You might also want to consider limiting the types of foods you allow yourself to eat in the evening. Give yourself 3 healthy options that are filling but you won’t overeat. For example, piece of fruit, carton of yogurt, and string cheese. If you find yourself rooting around the pantry for other items, you’ll know you are choosing for emotional reasons.
4. Lack of Structure
Do you do well with your eating plans during the day because you are busy with things like work, kids, and activities? You have a set schedule to your day and follow your routine.
At night, you don’t have a set plan for what you will do with your time past dinner. This sounds relaxing, but all of us do better with some type of routine.
Set up a simple plan for your evening time so that your minutes are accounted for. This doesn’t have to be a burden or chore! Plan in things you enjoy.
A simple evening routine might look something like this:
6:00-6:30 Dinner with family
6:30-7:00 Clean up dinner, make lunches for tomorrow, get clothes and items ready for next day
8:00-9:00 Watch TV
9:00-10:00 Read a book, take a bath, get ready for bed
Girl, you’re just tired and need to go to bed!
One of the things I realized about myself was that a lot of my night eating happened because I was simply exhausted. I’m a busy mom of 5 kids, own my own business, I’m a pastor’s wife and the list goes on.
When I reach for food in the evenings, I stop and ask myself, “Am I hungry or just tired?” If the answer is tired, food won’t help but sleep will.
I’m sure you have tons of commitments and responsibilities, too. By the end of the day, you are worn out. Instead of using food to wind down, get more sleep, which is good for weight loss as well.
What to Do After Overeating at Night
What if you’ve already overeaten at night? What should you do next.
- First, don’t panic. Tomorrow is a new day and a fresh chance to make different choices.
- Stop eating. Sometimes when we feel we’ve blown it, it’s tempting to give in thinking like, “I’ve already blown it. I’d might as well eat the whole thing.” This can lead to binge eating at night and is never helpful. The calories have to go somewhere, and that’s more calories you will need to counter in order to lose pounds.
- Get back on track with healthy eating as quickly as possible. (Use this guide, with free printable Back on Track After Overeating Checklist, to walk you through the steps.)
- Eat breakfast the next morning. You may not feel especially hungry in the morning after eating at night, but I highly recommend you eat breakfast. This will set you up for a pattern of healthy eating the rest of the day, which stops the binge cycle.
With these strategies to curb your appetite at night, you’ll be able to end a pattern of night-time overeating and get to your weight loss goals.
Most of all, don’t feel like curbing your night eating will take away all your fun and relaxation. I actually enjoy my evening so much more now that I don’t stress about if I should or shouldn’t snack. Plus, I go to bed feeling light and wake up in the morning feeling great.
Do you need help with how to stop eating at night? Share about it in the comments below.
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