Many people find themselves eating late at night, even when they are not hungry.
Nighttime eating can cause you to eat more calories than you need, which can lead to weight gain.
Here are 10 things you can do to stop eating late in the evening or at night.
1. Identify the cause
Some people eat most of their food late in the evening or during the night.
To change this habit, you need to identify the cause of the problem.
Nighttime eating may be the result of overly restricted daytime food intake, leading to hunger at night. Habit or boredom may also be the cause.
However, nighttime eating has also been linked to some eating disorders, including binge eating disorder and night eating syndrome.
These two disorders are characterized by different eating patterns and behaviors, but they can have the same negative effects on your health.
In both, people use food to curb emotions such as sadness, anger, or frustration, and they often eat even when they are not hungry.
Binge eaters also tend to eat very large amounts of food in one sitting and feel out of control while they are eating.
On the other hand, people with the nighttime eating syndrome tend to graze throughout the evening and wake up during the night to eat, consuming at least 25% of their daily calories at night.
Both conditions have been linked to obesity, depression, and trouble sleeping.
Summary: Nighttime eating can be caused by boredom, hunger, binge eating disorder, and nighttime eating syndrome. Identifying the cause can help you take the right steps to solve the problem.
2. Identify your triggers
As well as identifying the overall cause of your overeating, you may find it useful to look for a specific pattern of events that usually sets off your eating behavior.
People reach for food for many reasons. If you’re not hungry but find yourself eating at night, think about what led up to it.
Often you will find you are using food to meet a need that is not hunger.
With nighttime eating syndrome, your entire eating pattern may be delayed due to your lack of daytime hunger.
One effective way to identify the cause of your nighttime eating and the things that trigger it is to keep a “food and mood” diary.
Tracking your eating and exercise habits alongside your feelings can help you identify patterns, enabling you to work on breaking any negative cycles of behavior.
Summary: Monitoring your behavior patterns and identifying what triggers you to eat at night will help you break cycles of emotional eating.
3. Use a routine
If you’re overeating because you aren’t eating enough during the day, getting yourself into a routine may be helpful.
Structured eating and sleeping times can help you spread your food intake over the day so that you’re less hungry at night.
Getting good quality sleep is vital when it comes to managing your food intake and weight.
According to a 2015 review of studies, lack of sleep and short sleep duration have been linked to higher calorie intake and poor-quality diets. Over a long period, poor sleep can increase your risk of developing obesity and related chronic diseases.
However, as the review noted, though sleep plays an important part in eating patterns, other factors are involved such as appetite-related hormones and time frames around food intake.
Having set times for eating and sleeping can help you separate the two activities, especially if you are prone to waking in the night to eat.
Summary: Having a routine for meal and sleep times can help you break unhealthy cycles of behavior. This can help if you have no appetite during the day or tend to binge at night.
4. Plan your meals
As part of your routine, you may also benefit from using a meal plan.
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Planning your meals and eating healthy snacks can help reduce the chances that you will eat on impulse and make poor food choices.
A 2013 study looked at the relationship between food and impulsivity. Study participants were people with overweight or obesity who either had binge eating disorder or didn’t have the condition. Results showed that the mere sight of food can act as a trigger for the body’s reward and disinhibition responses. Researchers observed this happening more often in participants who had binge eating disorders.
Having a meal plan can also reduce any anxiety about how much you are eating and help you spread your food throughout the day, keeping hunger at bay.
Summary: Planning your meals and snacks can help manage your food intake and stave off hunger.
5. Seek emotional support
If you think you may have a nighttime eating syndrome or binge eating disorder, you may want to speak with a doctor.
If needed, they can refer you to a mental health professional who can help you identify your triggers and implement a treatment plan.
These plans often use cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been shown to help with many eating disorders.
In a 2015 randomized controlled study, researchers compared the rapid-response and long-term impact of using three different therapeutic treatment methods, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, in treating 205 people with confirmed binge eating disorder diagnoses. Results showed the best outcomes, both short term (rapid response) and long term (remission), resulted from the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Creating an emotional support network will also help you find ways to manage negative emotions, which otherwise might lead you to the fridge.
Summary: For some people with eating disorders, seeking professional help and support can be key to overcoming problematic eating at night.
Anxiety and stress are two of the most common reasons why people eat when they are not hungry. However, using food to curb your emotions generally tends to be a temporary solution.
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If you notice that you eat when you are anxious or stressed, try to find another way to let go of negative emotions and relax.
Research has shown that relaxation techniques can help manage eating disorders such as nighttime eating syndrome and binge eating.
In a 2003 study, 20 people with a confirmed diagnosis of night eating syndrome were randomly assigned to one of two groups for an equal amount of time over 2 weeks.
One group received Abbreviated Progressive Muscle Relaxation Therapy (APRT), while the second group was placed in a controlled relaxation environment that provided similar benefits. Results showed that with just 20 minutes of APRT, participants benefited from lower stress levels.
Over the 8 days of practicing this technique daily, participants showed higher morning and lower nighttime hunger rates.
Relaxation techniques you may find useful include:
- breathing exercises
- hot baths
- gentle exercise
Summary: Instead of eating, try to deal with stress and anxiety using relaxation techniques, gentle exercise or stretching.
7. Eat regularly throughout the day
Overeating at night has been linked to erratic eating patterns that can often be categorized as disordered eating.
Eating at planned intervals throughout the day in line with “normal” eating patterns can help keep your blood sugar stable.
It can also help prevent you from feeling famished, tired, irritable, or having a perceived lack of food, which may lead to a binge.
When you get really hungry, you are more likely to make poor food choices and reach for high fat, high sugar, and processed foods.
Studies find that those with regular meal times (eating 3 or more times per day) have better appetite control and lower weight.
Generally speaking, eating less than 3 times per day is thought to reduce your ability to manage your appetite and food choices.
However, it’s important to note that results in this area have been mixed.
The best eating frequency for managing hunger and the amount of food consumed is likely to vary among people.
Summary: Eating regular meals will prevent you from getting too hungry and will help you manage your cravings and food impulses.
8. Include protein in every meal
Different foods can have different effects on your appetite.
If you eat due to hunger, including protein at every meal may help curb your hunger.
It could also help you feel more satisfied throughout the day, stop you from being preoccupied with food, and help prevent snacking at night.
A 2011 study looked at consuming high-protein (HP) vs. normal-protein (NP) meals and the frequency of consuming them to determine if the effect of this combination method on managing hunger. The study involved 47 men who were overweight or had obesity. Results found that eating high-protein meals reduced cravings by 60% and cut the desire to eat at night by half, but frequency did not significantly impact outcomes overall.
Summary: Protein is known to keep you fuller for longer. Including protein in every meal can help reduce cravings and nighttime eating.
9. Stock up on healthy snacks that are readily accessible
If you are prone to eating high fat, high sugar, and highly processed foods, try to limit your consumption.
If snacks with low nutritional value are not within easy reach, you are much less likely to eat them.
Instead, fill your house with nutrient-rich food that you enjoy. Then when you have the urge to eat, you won’t snack on junk.
Good snack-friendly foods to have available if you get hungry include fruits, nuts, berries, plain yogurt, and cottage cheese.
Summary: Try to avoid bringing low-nutrient food choices into your home. If less nutritious snacks are not within arm’s reach you won’t be tempted to eat them.
10. Distract yourself
If you are preoccupied with thoughts of food because you’re bored, then find something else you enjoy doing in the evening.
Try going for a walk, calling a friend, or reading or researching recipes for healthy recipes.
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This will help keep your mind occupied.
Finding a new hobby or planning evening activities can help prevent mindless late-night snacking.
Summary: If you are eating out of boredom, then try finding something else you enjoy doing in the evening to keep your mind occupied.
The bottom line
Nighttime eating has been linked to excess calorie intake, developing obesity, and poor health.
If eating at night is a problem for you, consider trying the steps above. They may help you better managing your nighttime eating patterns.