By: Madeleine Ortiz
It’s 8pm on a Tuesday night. Susan has had a productive day that included an awesome new exercise class. She stuck to her meal plan all day and has even managed to clean up all her dishes after cooking and enjoying a nutritious dinner. She’s excited to sit down and enjoy a little TV… and then it hits her.
She needs dessert. And she needs it now.
It’s not always dessert, she says. Sometimes it’s chips or popcorn. Some days it’s another whole helping of the dinner she just neatly packed away for lunch tomorrow. On her worst days, she laments, it’s any combination of the three.
And it really, truly feels like a need, says Susan. Her brain is like a broken record, telling her over and over again “I need a nighttime treat.” Even when she knows she hasn’t brought home anything tempting from the grocery store, she’s at the cupboard, opening and closing its wooden door, waiting for the perfect snack to appear. “My body feels possessed, ,” she tries to explain, “It’s just going through the motions, anxious to satisfy this seemingly primal need for something to eat.”
The rational, meal plan-adhering, daytime Susan feels frustrated the next morning, and she asks herself a question she’s asked probably 100 times before: “How can I stop this cycle of nighttime snacking?”
Susan’s predicament is a common one. Health psychologist and author of the book, Healthy Habits Suck, Dr. Dayna Lee-Baggley says people struggle with unhealthy habits at night more than any other time of the day because of a domino effect happening in our brain. Our frontal lobe, the part of the brain that helps us make our decisions, is very tired from the hundreds of choices it has had to make all day long. By the time it’s dark, our prefrontal lobe wants to rest just as much as our body does… so our brain kicks into autopilot mode. This is the reason Susan often finds herself at her cupboard, even if she knows there isn’t a snack in there. Our brains, according to Dr. Lee-Baggley, just start doing what they have always done, which for many is watching TV and eating a snack.
And unfortunately, Dr. Paul B. Davidson, clinical psychologist, tells us brain fatigue isn’t the only thing working against us at night. Nighttime is a quiet time for most people, and for many, one of the few times they are alone. It’s often during these times, says Dr. Davidson, that unpleasant emotions we were able to distract ourselves from during the day start to creep into our thoughts. He says that Susan and many others might just be reaching for a snack as a way to comfort themselves.
Despite these factors, experts say there are ways to help curb nighttime snacking.
Prep your pantry.
If Susan’s story sounds familiar, the last thing you want in your pantry is ultra-processed food or other items that are super-tasty and easy to eat large quantities of in a relatively short amount of time. Dr. Lee-Baggley recommends doing your grocery shopping in the morning, before work and before the decision making part of your brain is fatigued. That way you’ll have an easier time saying no to purchasing snacks you know would be tempting to eat late at night. It’s OK if Susan’s autopilot has her headed to her pantry if there’s not going to be anything in there for her to snack on while she’s watching TV.
And if you’re worried about how frustrated you’ll feel when you happen upon an empty pantry after dinner, Dr. Davidson recommends stocking up on pre-cut veggies, seltzer waters, herbal teas and other healthy items you can enjoy at night without derailing your daytime efforts. He assures us that even eating an entire bag of chopped celery isn’t going to hurt your health goals.
Create healthy cues.
Our brains like to make things easy for us and cues and habits are how it does that.
We often on autopilot because, often without knowing it, we’ve cued ours brain to do just that. If Susan consistently gets home from work, takes off her shoes, changes into comfortable clothes and then immediately turn on her TV, her brain will soon start to recognize that as a pattern, and even if she meant to clean her bedroom one evening, she’ll end up turning on the TV as soon as she has put on her sweatpants. Fortunately for Susan, and everyone who struggles with cues that lead to unhealthy habits, Dr. Lee-Baggley says our brains are highly adaptive, and it’s easier than you might think to create new cues and new habits.
Start by being more mindful, she says. Even if it means hiding the remote for the TV, anytime you can realize and come out of autopilot will help break you out of your usual pattern. Saying what you are doing aloud can also help turn off the mindlessness and help you recognize what you are presently doing. Try putting sticky notes around your kitchen or on your TV to remind you to stop and breathe or even take a five minute break before eating or watching TV.
Once you’ve become more mindful you can start creating new cues and patterns. Leave a stack of books on your coffee table and pick one up each time you sit on the couch. Tape a coloring sheet on your fridge and leave a cup of colored pencils on your counter. Each time you find yourself in front of the fridge after dinner, color a small piece of your coloring sheet instead of opening it. Have fun getting creative with your new, healthy cues and habits.
Turn off the TV.
For Susan, this one sounds easier than it actually is. She loves TV and it’s always been her way to decompress after a long day. Dr. Davidson says he can relate, but it doesn’t make it any less dangerous to your health goals. TV is relaxing because it is mindless, and this mindlessness is exactly what makes you fall into the autopilot habits trap. And that doesn’t even mentionthe dozens of advertisements that tempt you with delicious-looking, usually highly-processed foods. He recommends finding things you enjoy doing instead. Call a friend, start a journal, read a book, take a walk or do anything else that feels relaxing and fun. If all else fails, Dr. Lee-Baggley suggests simply going to bed. There’s actually a lot of evidence that sleep has a huge impact on weight management and on our health in general so if you’re trying to find something to do instead of TV, sleep may actually be your best bet.
Believe in yourself.
Susan always feels discouraged after a night of snacking, and often tells herself things like “I’ll never be able to stop,” and “there’s just no point,” and if you’re a nighttime snacker, you may be able to relate. Try to stop the negativity. Dr. Davidson says new habits can be hard – and usually take longer than we think before they start sticking. He recommends tracking positive progress with something simple, like putting a sticker or a smiley face on the calendar every night you go without post-dinner snacking. The positive reinforcement builds confidence and keeps you motivated better than negative self-talk ever could.
With the right environment, confidence and support, both you and Susan can finally say goodbye to nighttime snacking and feel healthier and happier 24 hours a day.
To find a weight management physician in the United States near you, click here.
To find a weight management physician in Canada near you, click here.