If you are like me, your diet falls apart at night. I’ll be good all day, eating salads for lunch, drinking plenty of water and keeping track of everything I eat using a weight loss app on my phone. But like clockwork when I get home from work and swap my jeans for Lululemons, my self control starts to crack and the feeding frenzy begins. Whether it’s snacking while I prepare dinner or nibbling on chips or spoon fulls of peanut butter before bed, there are just so many opportunities for me to ruin my diet at night. Despite my best efforts, I always end up derailing all of my good decisions from the day with stupid things like string cheese or a second glass of wine when I don’t need it. It’s certainly not physical hunger that causes me to run to the kitchen during commercial breaks and stare at the cupboards thinking, “What is the least bad food I can eat?”
Well, that used to be my routine–until I read the most incredible thing last week: humans are actually programmed to eat at night. And you can even pinpoint the exact time when your cravings will come on strongest. Wait, whaaat?! According to this study by Oregon Health & Science University, “our internal circadian clock increases hunger and cravings for sweet, starchy and salty foods in the evenings–especially at 8pm.”
Does that time sound about right? It certainly did for me. Who knew that the reason we run to the kitchen and grab a snack for our 8pm show is not because our self control is weakest at that time, but because our bodies are hardwired to pig out then? Apparently, this biological rhythm caused our ancestors to store fat for survival in times when food was scarce (the more you eat at night, the fatter you are–another revelation from the study). And even though our civilization has progressed, we still have those built-in urges to eat today. Darn you, cave people!
Learning that nighttime snacking was a natural phenomenon and proven by the medical community was great and all, but it didn’t change my habits–I had to do that myself. Luckily, the study set in motion a series of events that would help me stop nighttime snacking for good. I decided the only way for me to fight my body’s natural urge to eat was to totally change everything about my nighttime routine and the associations I made with eating and drinking (you can’t watch an episode of Real Housewives without a glass of wine in hand–right??). It sounds like a tall order, but it’s actually quite simple: change what I could change. Eliminate triggers. Instead of doing exactly the same things I’d been doing every night and expecting different results (the definition of an insane person), I decided to control what I could–from the second I walked in the door at night until the minute my head hit the pillow. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I resolved to go full court press against the cravings when they hit around 8pm. And at least I knew exactly when they’d come! I had been given a leg up over my opponent (eating).
Once my plan was in motion, I was hyper-aware of my routines. Here’s exactly how it went down (the details are necessary, sorry!):
Normally when I walk in the door at night, I greet my 9-month old daughter in the kitchen where the nanny hands her off. Knowing that this is typically when and where I’d ask my husband if he wanted a glass of wine, I walked into the living room and held the baby there instead. Okay, so far so good. The urge for wine passed almost immediately as I sat and played with her for twenty minutes or so. I could actually give her my undivided attention, instead of splitting it with the Pinot. It felt good and she was way more interesting than the wine anyways. I then changed into my most comfortable clothes with an elastic waist, per usual, and felt some momentum building. I could do this. One situation at a time.
As 7pm hit, I remembered that I’d have to go prepare her bottle in the kitchen–another trigger for me. Usually, I’d be taking sips of my wine and nibbling on a Kraft single (wine and cheese pairing!) while I warmed her bottle. I decided that if I boiled water in a kettle it would heat the bottle faster than tap water, and I could get out of the kitchen before the cheese drawer started singing my name. It actually worked and as I fed her all I could think about was that I hadn’t consumed one calorie yet, when I’d normally have been 200 or 300 deep at this point.
I fed the baby and put her down in her crib for the night (I won’t bore you with details of what it takes to get a 9-month-old to sleep in her own bed–but it’s a little more elaborate than that). I immediately realized that without a baby in my arms to keep me from snacking, it would be just me, my cravings and a fridge full of food from which I’d have to extract materials for a low-calorie dinner, prepare said dinner, and eat not one bite more. Okay, let’s do this!
Things were off to a great start because I hadn’t had any wine, which usually lowers my self control even further when it comes to snacking. I was feeling strong as I chopped up veggies for a salad and microwaved Lean Cuisines for the hubby and myself (okay, I know–I’m a bad wife I don’t cook dinner from scratch! Whatever.) I cheated a little bit–eating a few artichoke hearts while I prepped the salad, but I decided it was okay because according to my Weight Watchers app they are 0 points. My husband and I sat down for dinner, as usual, in front of the TV (okay, now you’re getting all my deepest, darkest secrets) and ate.
I felt satisfied from dinner, but it wasn’t 8pm yet and I still had at least another 2 1/2 hours before I went to bed for the night. This would be the true test of my new anti-snacking strategy. I made a decision earlier in the day that as soon as an urge to eat came on after dinner, I wouldn’t head for the kitchen or even stay seated on the couch–I would walk into a different room that had no associations with nighttime eating for me. Sure enough, around 8pm I started thinking about having a jalapeno string cheese (yum!). Before I could act on the craving or even let it intensify further, I went to the laundry room and folded a small load of napkins. That took about 5 minutes and then I walked to the kitchen and put them away in the drawer. Okay, I still kinda wanted that string cheese. I remembered that I wanted to track a package, so I went to the office and opened my computer. Finding the tracking number in my email and looking it up online took another 10 minutes or so, and I was satisfied that I could cross that item off my to-do list. At this point about 25 minutes had passed since my original craving, and to treat myself I returned to the couch and put my feet up. I didn’t reward myself with food, but at that point I didn’t even want any. I was happy to have gotten over the hump, I’d forgotten about that particular snack (what was it? A cheese cube?) and I was just relieved to be thinking about something other than food at night for once.
It was a small triumph and I was pleased with myself, so I took that momentum and when my next craving hit an hour later–this time for something sweet–I employed the same tactic. This time, I headed to my bedroom, where I remembered something else I needed to do–take the dry cleaning out of the bags and switch the hangers to hang in my closet. I made sure to do it slowly and deliberately, hanging everything perfectly on the felt hangers and smoothing out the garment so it wouldn’t get wrinkled against the other clothes. I then walked to the kitchen to put the plastic garment bags in the recycling. *Oh no, the kitchen!* I didn’t linger there. I immediately turned on my heels and headed back to the office, where I noticed that my daughters toys were everywhere. I cleaned up the toys and even took the time to wipe down her play mat. Again, I crossed more items off my to-do list, which caused me to feel productive and organized. I returned to the couch to happily join my husband for our favorite show. The rest of the night was spent laughing at old episodes of Parks & Rec and then tucking in to bed with a partially empty stomach (best feeling ever). I’d had a successful diet night and I hadn’t done anything too drastic to achieve it.
For the past five days, this little “trick” has worked. When cravings hit or I think they’re about to (because, remember, they are as routine as an alarm clark), I physically change the scene and occupy myself with something that has no association with food for me. Every night gets easier, too. I’ve found that I can still watch TV or veg on the couch without needing something to chew on while I do it. Progress!
Have you struggled with nighttime snacking? Leave a comment below to share your story with the author.