Breaking Bad: How to Kick the Late Night Snacking Habit

by | Jul 16, 2014

Photo by nettsu

Whenever I ask people what the most difficult habit is for them to break, late night snacking is often the first thing they say. This doesn’t surprise me.

If you feel like a zombie every night when you get home from work, it’s because you pretty much are one. Even if you enjoy your job, you are still subject to countless stressors throughout the day that deplete your cognitive resources––especially those required for self-control. Without a well of willpower to rely on at the end of the day, our brains go into autopilot to avoid more heavy lifting.

For these reasons, more than at any other time of day our evening actions are guided by habit. All the cues and triggers around our home––the TV, computer, couch, etc.––guide us mindlessly to the pantry for the cookies, or the freezer for the ice cream, and we eat to our heart’s content (not our mind’s or stomach’s content, those guys stopped caring hours ago). Stopping doesn’t even occur to us. We just continue until the cookies are gone, or the carton is empty.

It makes sense that these late night eating habits are particularly difficult to kick. Bad food habits are hard to break as is, but at night we have even less self-control than at other times of day for reshaping them, so we usually don’t even try. These habits are also especially strong, since they are deeply entrenched through weeks, months and years of repetition.

So what should we do?

Step one is recognizing that these late night eating patterns are indeed habits. It isn’t because the ice cream tastes too good to resist, or the cookies are singing their siren song of seduction. It isn’t because you’re too weak to overcome these temptations. You’re just acting out a script because your brain is tired. Never forget that habits can and will be reprogrammed if you attack them correctly.

The next step is making sure that you replenish as much as your willpower as possible during dinner itself (remember, willpower requires blood sugar). This means eating something satisfying and nutritious that you really enjoy. My own late night trail mix habit finally lost its power over me when I stopped pretending I should only eat a small salad at dinner. Consider putting an egg on it, or adding beans or lentils (or more vegetables, if that’s what you’re lacking) to your meal to make it more substantial.

Practicing mindful eating habits at dinner is another way to bolster your willpower. Unlike at breakfast or lunch, most of us have nothing important to do after dinner. This means you are all out of excuses for plowing through your meal like there’s no tomorrow. Mindfulness is a very effective way to catch yourself during unconscious eating habits and redirect your actions. Though it doesn’t usually come naturally to us, your ability to eat mindfully can be strengthened with practice. Slowing down and being mindful at dinner can help you extend that awareness into your late night snacking habit and begin to reprogram it.

Just as important, mindfulness during dinner helps bolster satiety in your brain, cutting cravings that might otherwise creep up later. Simple things like putting your fork down between bites, chewing each bite 25 times, making sure you put your food on a plate and sit at a table can dramatically reduce your desire to overeat and extinguish cravings for “hyperpalatable” foods. Once you’ve restored some willpower and cut your cravings you have a fighting chance at breaking the habit.

The next step is identifying the cue that triggers you to start snacking. Is it the couch, the TV, an emotion, boredom, procrastination, or something else? There is some need that you are filling by snacking after dinner. Knowing what kicks off your habit can help you create an alternate plan of action.

You must also identify the reward you are getting by carrying out the habit. If you are eating a satisfying dinner, the reward is unlikely to be the food itself. It is more likely to be something subtle, like comfort (for emotional eaters) or distraction (to spare your dwindling mental energy).

Discovering the precise reward you’re getting from your habit script can be tricky, but you can test different hypotheses and see what works. If you have the habit of eating ice cream while watching TV, try pausing the TV and eating the ice cream alone in the kitchen. Not as fun? Then the reward isn’t the ice cream.

Once you know the trigger and the reward, you need to find another way to achieve the same feeling without mindless eating. If you’re looking for comfort, warm herbal tea or a hot bath can be a wonderful substitute. If you’re trying to distract your mind from your evening work, it might be a good idea to find an easier task to give yourself at night. Better yet, avoid late night work altogether.

If sugar really is your goal (it has a tendency to hijack reward pathways in the brain), you may need to wash it out with the foodist recalibration. The first few days are tough, but at around the fifth day cravings tend to subside. The most effective way to disperse cravings is by distracting yourself with other activities. Call a friend, pick up a hobby, take a walk, go to bed or even play video games to get your mind focused on another goal.

Making it more difficult for yourself to indulge your habit can also be effective, since it can force you to find an alternative action. Remove all the trigger foods from the house. Replace them with something you enjoy but that is healthier (like fruit or tea) if the food itself is the reward.

Even simply brushing your teeth after dinner can make late night eating less appealing. Too lazy to walk up the stairs to your bathroom? Store an extra toothbrush and tube of toothpaste downstairs for the occasion.

The precise strategy that works for you to reprogram your habit may require some experimentation, but that doesn’t make it impossible. Remember that the goal here isn’t to prevent yourself from eating things you enjoy. We just want to make sure that all your indulgences are conscious decisions that are actually worth it.

How did you kick your late night snacking habit?

Originally published August 7, 2013.

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17 Responses to “Breaking Bad: How to Kick the Late Night Snacking Habit”

  1. Steve says:

    If, as I’ve read, the max time between meals should be ~6 hours (breakfast 7am, lunch 12pm, dinner 6pm) then wouldn’t an 11pm “meal” just make sense?

    I guess I just never saw this as a “snacking habit” as much as a sign that A) you should already be asleep or B) you’re eating too many of your daily calories in the first 3/4 of your day, not leaving room for the last 1/4 of your day.

    I’m not saying don’t eat healthy, I’m usually satiated by a glass of milk and some fruit, but calling it a “snack” seems to undermine our daily caloric intake cycle.

  2. Maybe there’s another point of view, that a before-bed snack is actually a good thing? One of the many tenets I learned from Medifast was the importance of keeping your body “thinking” that there’s neither feast nor famine, just everyday healthy eating. That includes four small meals throughout the day, a healthy dinner and a snack before bed to shorten the “fast” before breakfast. My body l-o-v-e-s this eating regimen! My go-to before bed is 100 calories of something, often Greek yogurt, some times fruit, some times a tortilla and cheese or warm vegetable soup or some times even oatmeal and peanut butter.

    So while I buy into the idea that chips and cake and big sandwiches and alcohol and and and are late-night snacks to avoid, I don’t buy the idea that a late-night snack is anything but a good thing.

  3. I agree that a lot of times snacking isn’t needed after dinner and is done as a habit out of boredom or emotions. I have noticed that with myself. I have found that as I become more in tune with my body, I often find that I get hungry before bed. Realizing this was a key for me because I could then plan to eat a healthy snack when that hunger hit rather than mindlessly reaching for chips or cookies or anything that sounded good in the moment. Planning a small healthy snack before bed keeps me on track for the day. If I need it, I eat it but if I am not hungry, I don’t eat it.

  4. melissa says:

    I eat a nice, satisfying dinner. Then maybe a small dessert, like a small cookie, or small bowl of ice cream. Then I brush my teeth, and don’t eat until breakfast, usually around 13-14 hours later. I like to go to sleep without a heavy stomach. I’ve gotten to the point where I know how much to eat at dinner so that I will feel “just right” when I go to bed — not hungry, not full, just neutral.

    When I wake up in the morning, I’m not immediately hungry. I usually wait an hour to eat again.

    The habit that has been harder to break is snacking between lunch and dinner (it doesn’t have to do with hunger-it’s been a habit), but I’m getting the hang of it now. The “reward” is that I’m the perfect state of hungry for dinner — not ravenous, but hungry so that the food tastes better than if I wasn’t hungry.

  5. Jakub says:

    Ironically I was just thinking about it feeling quite hungry at 11pm right now. I was actually curious what your stance on pre bed / night snacking is and am frankly a little surprised you are against it ?

    There definitely is a lot of conflicting opinions and research on what is or isn’t ok to eat before bed, or if it even matters at all. Would love to see you elaborate on the topic or cover in next video on your YouTube. Or is it that you are only against it because it promotes unhealthy snacking ?

    (And for the record went with green apple tonight, bit of a change from my typical prebed oatmeal, nuts or Greek yogurt!)

    • Darya Rose says:

      I’m not against eating when you are hungry. This post was a response to people who specifically told me that late night eating is a problem for them.

      • Steve says:

        Note to the Editor: I think a better title would have helped the confusion. The layout of the post was also a bit confusing. I had to read it a few times to really understand what you were getting at.

  6. Feast says:

    One of the best ways to avoid late night snacking is simply to avoid late night hunger! Make sure your dinner is satisfying and fulfilling enough to keep you out of the cupboards later in the night. Take some time to cook up a nice meal for yourself, ensuring that is has a good balance of protein, carbs, and other nutrients to provide that filling aspect.

    If you are snacking because you are just plain bored, replace with munching with something else: take your dog for a quick walk, start a project, make some tea.

  7. shelleyorama says:

    Umm, kinda wish feast had read fully before commenting…

    Anyhoo, I often work later shifts, arriving home @ 11pm feeling genuine hunger, so I go ahead and eat. But after reading your post, I’m now recognizing that this functional eating is getting mixed up with distractional (is that a word?) eating.

    That is, my late meal tends to be a quick, no-work hit of meat or dairy with fruit or veg — so far so good — but then lately I’ve often followed it up with ice cream, and all while watching tv! Increased work stress is the culprit I think. Tonight I will try eating the good stuff mindfully and replace the ice cream with music & making a pair of earrings.

    Thanks for the reality check!

  8. Andrea says:

    Many of us snack on things late at night because our brain tells us we have a sudden desire to eat something. This can often be due to blood sugar levels or even just watching somehting on TV that gets our cravings going. I’ve found that these feelings are instant and usally send us straight to the fridge. But the feeling is equally short-lived. If you can hold that thought and just wait 15 minutes, you’ll find that invariably that strong desire to eat is gone. It’s worked for me and I’ve since read studies showing this to be true.

  9. Carlos says:

    I think the article has a great point around making sure you have enough energy at the end of the day to make the right choice when you decide to eat, the time? your choice, but usually late snacking is a problem because we just do it in automatic and we are looking for an immediate gratification. If you are hungry eat, but choose wisely. Great article.

  10. TJ Boston says:

    I broke my bad late-night eating habits years ago by keeping only healthy things on hand: A few bites of ginger root cures the stomach issues I used to have when I first would lay down; a small handful of pecans is enough healthy protein to quiet my hunger for the night; and a small square of healthy very-dark chocolate melting in my mouth for a few minutes really satisfies my sweet-tooth (and is the only chocolate I allow myself most days.)
    I guess as I type this out that there really IS a fair amount of discopline involved… but it just doesn’t FEEL that way. Making healthy choices for a time just naturally becomes healthy habits it seems!

  11. Annie says:

    I kicked it by being more mindful of what I eat and when throughout the day, and choosing to eat lots of vegetables first and foremost. I also became more careful about eating calorie-dense foods and wheat products; usually not more than one for each meal (or very small portions of two). As a result, I have slowly lost quite a lot of weight without actually dieting. I believe my body is just naturally adjusting to the right weight over time.

    I still want a snack in the evening, but now I choose something like one rice cake with a schmear of peanut butter and a cup of herbal “sleepytime” tea. The rice cake satisfies the desire for something crunchy and salty, and the tea fills me up.

  12. I love this article! If you’re snacking late at night because you are truly hungry, eat something more filling at dinner. If you still choose to eat, just know that it’s not because your hungry!

  13. sing sing says:

    I stopped snacking at night after I *finally* realised it left me feeling faintly nauseous in the morning. Even nutritious snacks like nuts do it! Anyone else experience this too?

  14. Barbara says:

    Most of the time I do not need to eat a snack before bedtime. But if I do not eat a propper dinner I am hungry and I need to eat in order to fall asleep. I used to work night shifts and at that time I had to eat in the night too. I think that is okay. I try to eat than I am hungry and not because I am in the mood for it. But sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between the two.

  15. Jess says:

    I haven’t kicked it yet, but I’ve really found that night eating is SUPER related to boredom. If I come home after a long, exhausting day, the only thing I have the energy for is often TV- and let’s face it, TV is not that interesting. I get restless and head to the fridge at the first commercial break. I don’t have the same urge to snack if I do something more creative, choose a movie I genuinely want to see, or even knit while I vegetate in front of the tv. It’s all about keeping my brain busy with something other than stuffing my mouth.

    I also find that I snack a lot more when I have a glass of wine with dinner, which is super sad as I really DO enjoy pairing wine with my big pile of nutritious veggies

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