Here Are Some of the Best Ways to Avoid Stress Eating at Night

You’re watching television late at night when your stomach growls and you head to the kitchen to rummage for a salty, fatty, or sweet snack. You return and begin to munch while you watch.

Before long, you’ve eaten the entire pint of ice cream, bag of chips, or box of cookies. You feel guilt and self-loathing for overdoing it – again.

You sleep poorly while your body digests the high calorie, fatty, sugary food. The excess calories are stored in your body as fat. Your blood sugar is affected and maybe even your blood pressure. The next morning, you wake up feeling bloated and unwell before the day has even started.

This is called stress eating or nighttime bingeing.

Nighttime snacking/eating is more common than you may think. A 2021 representative survey of more than 1,000 American adults, age 18 to 80, found that nearly half of Americans reported snacking after 8:00 p.m.

If you’ve been struggling with this painful cycle of unhealthy eating, there’s good news. You can learn how to avoid stress eating and how to stop eating late at night by following some simple strategies.

But first, let’s take a closer look at what drives stress eating.

About Stress Eating

Stress eating, also called emotional eating, happens when we turn to certain foods or meals to fill emotional needs. It often has very little to do with physical hunger and more to do with “coating the nerves” or suppressing difficult feelings.

The only problem is that stress eating simply delays the inevitable pain of feeling the emotions. Then you have two problems – the toll unhealthy foods take on your body and mind, as well as the painful feelings that remain unprocessed.

The American Psychological Association reports that 27% of adults say they eat to manage stress, and 34% of those who report stress-driven overeating or eating unhealthy foods do it habitually.

Interestingly, research indicates that there’s a connection between stress and food. While in an acute stress response, appetite may go away. But if one experiences prolonged, excessive stress, it can lead to overeating and poor food choices.

But you can learn to minimize instances of stress and night eating. Here’s how…

5 of the Best Ways to Avoid Stress Eating at Night

  1. Stress Eating at Night 2 Start a Food Diary

Keeping a food journal helps to bring clarity and awareness about what you eat and when you eat, as well as associated feelings and events. Write everything down without judgment – what you’ve eaten, the quantity or portion size, the time of day and what occurred before a meal or snack.

  • Were you stressed?
  • Did a craving overcome you?
  • Were you exhausted?
  • Hormonal?

Usually, after a week or so, you’ll see a pattern emerge. Knowing your trigger foods, times of day, and situations are essential to overcoming emotional eating at night. You can take alternate action to ensure you don’t go down the self-sabotaging road!

  1. Regulating Behaviors

Sometimes people stress eat at night because they aren’t eating enough of the right foods during the day or failing to get enough sleep each night.

Experts recommend getting into a routine with your meals and sleep. Consider eating three healthy meals a day at regular times, and possibly a nutritious snack or two between meals.

If you’re up late, you may need a nutritious snack after dinner to keep your blood sugar levels stable until you go to bed. An example might be a green apple (low sugar, high fiber) and spoonful of almond butter (protein, fat, and fiber)

Nourish yourself at every meal and snack with nutrient-rich, whole foods. Meals should be balanced with lean protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber, healthy fats, and colorful fruits and vegetables.

Fermented foods are wonderful too as they help boost your gut health, which is connected to your mental well-being. There are a number of foods that can calm anxiousness too, including omega-3-rich fatty fish like salmon or walnuts, seeds, and hemp seeds. Vitamin D-rich foods like sardines, mushrooms, and tuna can be calming too.

Ensure you’re getting 7-9 hours of restful sleep at night.

These regulating behaviors can help stabilize your blood sugar levels, energy, mood, and brain health.

  1. Remove Obstacles

If you’re struggling with typical stress-eating foods such as refined carbs, sugary candy, and high fat treats, keep them out of your home!

That’s right. Round up the salty chips, ice cream, cookies, crackers, or whatever your trigger foods are and give them to someone or bring them to the office (the snacks will probably disappear in one afternoon).

Find new, healthy comfort foods. Consider healthy soups, roasted root veggies, a baked pear or apple with cinnamon, and delicious gluten-free whole grains such as oats for breakfast, or wild rice or quinoa at lunch or dinner.

Have healthy snack options at the ready…think nuts, apples, berries, veggies, hummus, plain Greek yogurt, and low-fat cottage cheese.

  1. Address Your Stress

Minimize the stress in your life and in your body.

Leave earlier for work or appointments so you don’t have to rush. Eat meals at a table rather than on the run or in front of the television. If you notice a correlation between being overly busy and stress or nighttime eating, simplify your schedule.

Take up some calming activities.

  • Enjoy a walk in nature
  • Try a yoga class
  • Practice diaphragmatic breathing
  • Find a meditation practice that you can do regularly
  • Explore a hobby that calms and relaxes you
  • Enjoy regular social time with family and friends
  • Find gentle exercise that brings you joy like a dance class or swimming

Bottom Line: you should try to live in a way that frequently activates your body’s “rest and digest” parasympathetic system, which reduces cortisol levels and is more centered around “being” than “doing.”

  1. Get Help

If you stop the stress eating, you may find out what’s eating you! All those emotions you swallow will come up. Get support. Reach out to an understanding friend, family member, or counselor who can help you process difficult feelings.

It’s important to note that if your eating has an out-of-control quality to it and/or you consume large amounts of food in a short amount of time, you may have an eating disorder and need the help of a qualified mental health professional and/or a program of recovery such as Overeaters Anonymous.

A New Freedom

It’s always difficult to break an unhealthy pattern at first. However, if you persist with incorporating some of these tips, you may be on your way to finding freedom from the pains of stress and habitual stress eating at night.

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Kim Henderson