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.