How to Stop Binge Eating at Night

In Blog by Dr. Nina4 Comments

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Do you find yourself reaching for food at night and eating (even if you aren’t hungry?)

You aren’t alone.

Many people find themselves reaching for food at night. A lot of times, they aren’t even sure why they are doing it and feel guilty and ashamed afterwards. They just want to know how to stop binge eating at night.

First of all, let me say that there is nothing “wrong with you.”

Why do you binge eat at night?

Bingeing is a way of coping with something inside. It’s about using food for comfort, distraction or to numb ourselves and express feelings of pain, anger, anxiety, or anything uncomfortable.

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Step 1: Identify what is the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger

If you want to learn how to stop binge eating at night, you will need to do some detective work. We’re going to start by looking at the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. 

There is a difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. You might actually be eating food because you are hungry, but it could be because you are dealing with emotional hunger instead. 

Physical hunger looks like…

  • A gurgling stomach.
  • Lightheadedness.
  • Getting a headache (especially if you haven’t eaten in hours).

Emotional hunger looks like…

  • A specific food looks good or sounds good.
  • You want to reward yourself or you feel like you deserve it.
  • You want to calm down or feel better.

Stop and ask yourself, what type of hunger am I experiencing right now? Be honest with yourself. Which symptoms am I having right now?

Lots of people eat to feel energized. This isn’t emotional hunger, but it’s the wrong type of response to exhaustion. If you are tired, you need rest, not food.

Also, if you are choosing energy food, you want to choose lean proteins, vegetables, and fruit, not sugary sweets that will give you a quick burst of energy now but leave you feeling even more tired later.

Try this exercise:

Next time you feel “hungry,” try postponing your meal for three minutes and see what happens. If you are physically hungry, you will probably get hungrier. If you are emotionally hungry, you may become more aware of the emotional triggers that are the driving force behind your urge to eat.

When you know if you’re eating because you are hungry for food or to resolve an internal conflict, it becomes easier to make healthy food choices.

Step 2: Be your own best friend. Listen to your body

Be kind to yourself and listen to your body. What does it need right now? Is it sleep, is it food because you really are hungry, or is it something else?

How can you be nicer to yourself and look for opportunities to improve the way that you talk to yourself?

Oftentimes, the way you speak to yourself could be doing more harm than good, especially if you are alone at night. Asking your body what it needs can go a long way to helping you be more mindful when you are eating. 

Step 3: Look at what binge eating might be doing FOR you

Now that you’ve identified that it’s not really physical hunger that you are experiencing, it’s time to put on your detective hat and start looking for clues. Emotional eating is often triggered by subconscious thoughts or emotions. So let’s play detective. 

Ask yourself…

  • What happened before I started binge eating at night the last time? 
  • What was I thinking about? 
  • How was I feeling? 
  • What was I saying to myself?
  • Was I eating to avoid thoughts, feelings, etc?
  • Is there a pattern of things or are they different things that are occurring? Do I see a common theme here?

This is where keeping a journal can be so helpful. Take time to ask yourself these questions and see what comes up for you right then? You might find patterns in the things that are causing you to turn to food. 

Our minds are incredibly adept at protecting us from unpleasant or upsetting emotions. We often become so good at avoiding what’s bothering us that we don’t even know why we are triggered. If you’re turning to food and you don’t understand why. 

I’m here to tell you it’s not because you’re addicted to food or have no willpower. It’s because your mind has found a way to protect you from something else.

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It’s not because you are addicted to food

Many people think their issue with binging at night is because they are addicted to food and out of willpower. They think they’ve become addicted to sugar, carbs, pizza, or Doritos.

The truth is this “addiction” is really your mind’s way of coping with something else. If you deal with the trigger, this addition usually goes away on its own because you never were really addicted to the thing in the first place.

Take my client Annette for example…

My client Annette was CONVINCED that she was addicted to sugar. She liked to bake cookies with her kids and would look for excuses to get them out of the kitchen so she could eat the cookie batter or the baked cookies.

When we dug into it, we discovered that she was really using food to substitute for fun. She was going through a messy divorce, had an unsatisfying job, and had no source of enjoyment in her life. Once she realized this, she took action. She got a job that fulfilled her and took up hobbies. Baking cookies with her kids became a fun activity to do together, and she was eventually able to eat just one cookie without feeling deprived. 

Step 4: Look for clues in the types of foods that you are choosing.

Take a moment to think about your last craving. Did you want something creamy like ice cream, something filling like cake or pizza, or something crunchy like chips? What could that possibly mean? Well, in all of my years of helping people with eating issues, I’ve discovered that nearly all cravings fall into one of three categories.

Smooth, creamy foods such as ice cream or pudding.

Filling foods such as bread, pasta, pizza, cake, or muffins 

Crunchy foods such as chips or crackers.

I discovered that these cravings often revealed clues about what my clients were actually craving when they turned to food.

If they wanted something creamy like ice cream, they were usually really looking for comfort, or they were feeling stressed. If this is you, the key to change is to figure out what has you looking for comfort and work to resolve that. 

If they wanted something filling such as bread or pasta, they were really trying to make up for loneliness, boredom, or feeling deprived. If this is you, then you need to look for new ways to fill the emptiness. Maybe it is taking up a new hobby, calling friends on the phone, joining a Facebook group, or taking a class in something like painting or yoga. Reach out to other people, chances are, they are feeling lonely too. Connection is something that we need as humans.

If my clients were craving chips or crackers, they were often angry, frustrated, or annoyed. If you are craving these types of foods, ask yourself what in your life is making you angry, frustrated, or irritated.

Step 5: Find ways to express your emotions instead of stuffing them down with food

Find ways to express your emotions that aren’t dependent on other people. This is where journaling is so helpful. You could write a letter to the person that you are angry at.

One of my favorite techniques is to write down all the things that are upsetting, frustrating, and angering me and then tear the paper into lots of tiny little pieces. It’s so satisfying! You could also tell a good friend about your feelings. (Choose wisely here.)

To wrap it all up, here's how to stop binge eating at night

If you want to stop binge eating, you need to do a little detective work to figure out what has you turning to food at night. Are you actually physically hungry or is it emotional hunger?

What types of foods are you craving and what is going on when you are craving the foods? This might hold clues to your triggers and help you discover steps that you can take.

It really helps to have a community that you can connect with and understand what you are going through.

If you want to connect with a supportive community that gets you, join my Facebook group. If you liked this post, I’d love to hear back from you.

Comment below or send me an email. If you have something that you would like me to write about, send me an email at dr.nina@drninainc.com. You might see your topic covered next.

Comments 4

  1. This is so spot on, even right to the kind of emotion I was experiencing and the type of food I was choosing! Spot on. Thank you for giving us this lens for becoming more mindful.

  2. Hi! I loved this!
    I was wondering what your stance was on Intermittent Fasting? I see so much stuff that is beneficial. What is your take on it?
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Shayla, funny you should mention this. I’m actually going to be discussing this on my next radio show (May 4, 2022). It’s The Dr. Nina Show on L.A. Talk Radio and you can watch LIVE on L.A. Talk Radio or on my Instagram, and listen later on Apple Podcasts. I definitely have some strong ideas about this topic.

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