Eating at night, often when you're not even hungry, can be a hard habit to break. Here are eight things you can do to help stop the snacking cycle.
See also: The best time of day to consume calories
See also: Healthy breakfast foods
1. Eat more during the day
If you tend to skip breakfast, grab lunch on the go, then over-eat at night, you might need to eat more during the day.
Make sure each meal contains plenty of fibre (found in vegetables and whole grains) and protein to fill you up and curb late night hunger-pangs. One study found that eating frequent high-protein meals reduced cravings by 60% and cut the desire to eat at night by half.
Even if your snacking habit is triggered by emotions - sadness, anger, frustration or boredom - eating properly throughout the day can help. Maintaining a stable blood-sugar level (by opting for low-GI foods and avoiding sugary foods) will help to even-out your mood.
Making sure your body is fuelled throughout the day will also help to combat tiredness – another common trigger of late-night munching.
2. Get more sleep
Lack of sleep can make cravings worse. Research shows that even one poor night's sleep can cause ghrelin, the body's hunger hormone, to rise. At the same time, tiredness can increase your desire to eat calorie-dense foods – making it harder to stick to your healthy eating regime. Chronic sleep deprivation has also been linked with an increased risk of obesity.
Eating too much late at night affects the digestion and could be preventing you from sleeping well. Try to go to bed at the same time each night, and distract yourself from eating by reading a good book, doing yoga, or listening to a relaxing hypnosis recording.
3. Tackle your anxiety
Stress and anxiety can leave you feeling drained of energy. If you over-eat because you feel tired or nervous, it's important to tackle your anxiety.
If you can find another way to let go of negative emotions and relax, it will make it easier to break the cycle of dependency on food as an emotional support.
Research suggests that relaxation techniques can help manage eating disorders such as night-time eating syndrome and binge eating. Next time you want to raid the fridge, take ten slow, deep breaths, or do some gentle stretching. Cravings lessen with a few minutes, so if you can avoid the first urge to snack, you'll have more chance of keeping your eating under control.
4. Distract yourself
It's easy to eat out of habit or boredom. If you find yourself tempted to snack, try doing something you enjoy that will distract you. Go out and play a sport, find a hobby that absorbs you, or watch a thrilling movie (no snacks allowed). If you can keep your mind occupied, you're less likely to think about food.
5. Don't keep treats in the house
It sounds obvious, but if there's a favourite snack you enjoy, don't keep it in the house. If you want to buy crisps and biscuits for the rest of the family, keep them in a high cupboard and well out of sight.
Studies show that just seeing a food is enough to trigger a craving. Instead, keep a bowl of fruit out of the side. If you must snack, pick at grapes or make up a bowl of fruit salad instead.
6. Eat half your dinner now and the rest later
Instead of eating your evening meal in one go, try separating it into two portions. Eat the first half as you would normally, and then wait an hour or two to have the rest. This will give you something to look forward to eating, without the extra calories of snacking.
7. The kitchen (and your tummy) closes at 8pm
Make it a rule that the kitchen closes at 8pm each night. Throw away any left-overs, clean up, and make it a point to turn off the lights and leave the kitchen. Brushing your teeth can also help to signal that you've finished eating for the day.
8. Get some support
Finally, if you're concerned that your night-time eating habits are out of control, it may be worth seeking professional support.
A professional may suggest cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which has been shown to help with many eating disorders. Alternatively, you could go along to group meetings or find a group online who can offer advice and support. Try associations such as Over-eaters Anonymous.