Did you know I answer reader questions? If you’ve got one for me, drop it here. (Don’t worry, you can be anonymous!) Here’s a question I recently received:
How do I stop eating for no reason?
Q: How do I stop eating for no reason? I find myself randomly eating so much food at the end of the day, even though I’m not hungry or even craving or really enjoying what I’m eating. I’ll just grab whatever is in my pantry, and eat mindlessly, often beyond the point where I feel full. How can I stop doing this?
A: Before I dive into this question, I need to start by saying this scenario is super common. People do this ALL. THE. TIME.
And no matter what the people you follow on social media eat in a day, there is no one “right” way to eat. There’s an overwhelming amount of information coming at us about what the healthiest and best way to eat is, but eating is like living — there are a million different ways to do it “right.”
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s unpack this question, starting with your assessment that you’re eating a lot at the end of the day “for no reason.” I’m not convinced this is happening for “no reason,” as you say.
Every behavior has some motivation behind it, whether we realize it or not. And understanding why you do what you do is the first step to do something different. (in this case, not raiding the pantry at night). That said, I’m not sure you need to stop that habit, but we’ll get into that later.
Get curious about what’s driving you to snack at night
To figure out why you’re snacking at night, ask yourself a few questions:
1| What am I feeling when I head to the pantry?
It sounds like you’re not experiencing biological hunger when you start eating, so it’s worth exploring what’s driving your urge to eat. You say you don’t know, but I’d challenge you to get curious, tune in and see what comes up.
You might have heard of the acronym HALT. It’s a commonly used tool in the treatment of disordered eating and it stands for hungry, angry, tired, lonely; the idea is to pause before you eat and ask yourself if you’re hungry, angry, tired, or lonely.
This is a great starting point, but if none of these states or emotions feel like they fit, I’d encourage you to expand your “checklist” to include other negative emotions, like frustrated, overwhelmed, resentful, unmotivated, scared, anxious, sad, to name a few. (There’s no shortage of ways to feel terrible, amirite!?)
2| What has my eating been like lately?
If you’re not physically hungry and you can’t identify any negative emotions, look at your recent eating patterns.
Even if your stomach isn’t growling and you’re not experiencing the other telltale signs of hunger, you might feel the need to eat because you…
*have been avoiding carbs or other major categories of food (i.e. sugar, dairy, processed foods)
*skipped or delayed a meal earlier in the day
*avoided snacking, even when you were hungry
*didn’t allow yourself to have dessert, even though it looked SO GOOD.
*ate according to a plan or rules (i.e. eating“clean,” hitting your macros, following Noom, staying within your WW points, or counting calories in My Fitness Pal).
If you’ve been restricting in any way, the natural response is to crave food. It might not seem like there’s “a reason” for your night eating, but our bodies were designed to react to any type of restriction, including mental restriction (when you eat something but feel guilty about it because you believe it’s “bad”) by overdoing it or binging.
It’s not that you’re a “bad eater” or you lack discipline. It’s that as a culture, we’ve been duped into believing that the reason we don’t have the “ideal body” is because we are eating too much or eating the wrong foods.
But that’s not true. Not all bodies were designed to have flat stomachs, visible collarbones, etc. When you see people looking “perfect” on social media or wherever, you actually have no idea what sacrifices they’re making to look that way, what medications or supplements they might be on, how much they edited their images, or whether genetics are playing a role in their appearance.
How can you meet your needs (with or without food)?
3| What do I need in this moment?
Now that you’ve identified where you’re at physically and emotionally, ask yourself what would be helpful right now.
If you’re hungry, by all means, eat.
If you’ve been restricting and you’re craving food or thinking a lot about food, definitely eat. (The quickest way to stop binging/overeating is to start eating regularly throughout the day… a topic for a whole separate blog post!)
If eating is the answer, I’d encourage you to take whatever it is you feel like eating, put it on a plate, and eat it without distraction so that you can fully taste it, enjoy it, and pay attention to your fullness cues. (In other words, don’t inhale it while standing in your pantry and scrolling Instagram!)
But if you’re experiencing a negative emotion, you may want to explore non-food solutions.
Of course, you might come back to food- and that’s not the worst thing. I’m not here to demonize emotional eating, which is something I’ll definitely talk about in a future post.
But I’m not hearing you say that you feel like food is going to hit the spot; You’re saying that you’re getting into foods you don’t even crave and that you don’t even enjoy all that much.
So what’s really going on?
Let’s say you’ve figured out that you’re actually tired — but after a long day of work and family commitments, you’re craving sleep and some time for yourself. Ask yourself what would be a way to meet that need that a) doesn’t involve food and b) makes you feel good.
You could get into your pajamas and drink a cup of hot tea while listening to music or reading a book in bed. Maybe you could press a hot, damp washcloth into your face (this makes me feel like I’m in a spa plus it helps remove my mascara!). Or maybe you light a scented candle, turn the lights down, and listen to music for a few minutes.
Maybe you’re angry about a situation that occurred earlier in the day. You could journal about it, vent about it in a voice memo to a friend, or talk it through with your partner. Or maybe you don’t want to get into it right before bed because you don’t want to get riled up; a non-food distraction like a magazine, a podcast, or a snuggle with your pet, might be perfect.
I could come up with a million hypotheticals here, but you get the idea.
TLDR: To stop mindlessly eating, figure out what’s going on, ask yourself what you need, and meet the need the best way you can.
I hope this helps.
If you’re looking for personalized, one-on-one support to ditch the rules and start enjoying food without guilt, don’t hesitate to reach out.