Are You a Late Night Eater?

Alright, let’s be honest. You eat dinner most nights at a reasonable hour, but then, later in the evening, you find yourself  heading to the freezer for your nightly ice cream fix, or to the pantry to raid the cookies and chocolate stash. Truthfully, you’re not even hungry, but you feel a craving for something sweet and fatty. Nothing to be ashamed of–late night foraging is something many of us succumb to.

We all know that eating late at night isn’t the best for our bodies, but why do we feel a strong urge to chow down long after the sun has set? Before I discuss the why of late night eating, let’s take a look at how late night eating affects your health and well being.

First and foremost, eating late at night disrupts your body’s natural rhythms. Your circadian rhythms and many other hormones in the body are affected by the type and amount of calories you ingest and the time of day you eat. Eating too close to bedtime not only disrupts your biological clock and interferes with your sleep, but it may also devastate vital body functions and contribute to disease.

Your body uses the naturally occurring fast that happens from approximately 8pm to 8am to reset hormones, especially cortisol, the short-term stress hormone, and ghrelin, the hunger hormone. If you don’t allow your body enough time to fast and sleep deeply, these biological pathways become disrupted. And all of this can thrown your metabolism off kilter and lead to weight gain.

And finally, you’ll want to avoid eating too close to bedtime because doing so may increase your risk of acid reflux. These symptoms include the all-too-familiar food regurgitation, heartburn, acid stomach, chronic throat clearing and dry cough. The stomach takes a few hours to empty, especially if you’ve eaten foods high in protein and fat, and if you get horizontal too soon after eating, your stomach may very well leak its contents up into your esophagus. Chronic acid reflux is something to take seriously as it can end up damaging your esophagus.

So now that you’re clear on how late night eating affects your health and well being, let’s examine why you feel the need to fill a bowl (or two) with your favorite treat when it’s time to wind down the day.

First and foremost, you may not be eating enough calories, especially fiber-filled unprocessed whole plant foods, during the day. When our days are packed, we often skip meals or grab processed nutrient-deficient foods to satisfy our hunger. Our bodies are wise: if we haven’t eaten enough nutrient-dense food during the day, they will send out signals, via cravings, later in the day to make up for any deficiencies.

Your stress level is high. When you’re stressed and anxious all day , your cortisol level remains elevated at night, when it should be dropping. Cortisol increases your appetite for sugar and fat and this is why ice cream, cookies, cake and pies look so good in the wee hours. Combat night time stress eating by unwinding earlier in the evening. Dimming the lights helps lower cortisol levels, as does a detoxifying, soothing bath. Meditation and deep breathing exercises can also lower stress and cortisol levels.

Your blood sugar spikes up and crashes down throughout the day. If your blood sugar levels are constantly spiking and crashing, your cravings will feel intense and your best intentions for healthy eating will go right out the window. Ingesting processed foods full of sugar, fat and salt (think chips, cookies, candy and pretzels), and sugary, creamy beverages like coffee drinks, leads to unstable blood sugar levels. Consider reducing your intake of processed foods and added sugars–you’ll notice those evening food cravings disappearing. Try selecting unprocessed whole plant foods like sweet potatoes, yams, nuts and berries for snacks.

You’re an emotional eater and you turn to food for soothing, comfort, pleasure, excitement and distraction. Emotional hunger–an exaggerated desire or appetite for food–often feels like true physical hunger. In addition to the unwinding activities mentioned above, try journaling early in the evening to get thoughts and feelings down on paper. I encourage my clients to reflect on the day and practice a 3-step journaling process I call an Inner Conversation. Step1: What am I feeling? Take a moment to write down all the emotions you are aware of, including any sensations in your body. Allow yourself to be present to these emotions and sensations. Step2: What am I needing? If you’re not physically hungry, your body does not need food! Perhaps you need comfort, validation, companionship, stimulation, reassurance or hope. Step3: Access your wise Inner Nurturer voice for comfort and reassurance and to help you meet your needs. This is the kind, loving, mature part of you that can always help you meet your needs. Practice using this voice as often as possible–write down phrases this voice can say to you that are calming and soothing. Practice your Inner Conversations as often as possible. The payoffs will be immense.

Late night eating is a bad habit. Try setting a conscious intention to break it. Be prepared to be uncomfortable for a few nights. The way you feel in the morning–physically and emotionally lighter–will be your motivation to continue. Sweet dreams.

Posted by Julie M Simon, MA, MBA, MFT, psychotherapist and life coach, author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual: A Practical Mind-Body-Spirit Guide for putting an End to Overeating and Dieting, founder and director of The 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and certified personal trainer.  If you have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed in this blog, go to http://overeatingrecovery.com and contact Julie.

Image courtesy of marin/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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