Table of Contents
- Why do you binge eat at night?
- Step 1: Identify what is the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger
- Step 2: Be your own best friend. Listen to your body
- Step 3: Look at what binge eating might be doing FOR you
- It’s not because you are addicted to food
- Take my client Annette for example…
- Step 4: Look for clues in the types of foods that you are choosing.
- Step 5: Find ways to express your emotions instead of stuffing them down with food
- To wrap it all up, here's how to stop binge eating at night
- Frequently Asked Questions
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.
Are you one of them? Do you find yourself reaching for food at night and eating (even if you aren’t hungry?)
You aren’t alone.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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. And, 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 email@example.com. You might see your topic covered next.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do people binge eat at night?
People often turn to binge eating at night as a way of coping with something inside. That could mean using food for comfort, distraction, or to numb feelings of pain, anger, anxiety, or anything uncomfortable.
How can I tell the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger?
The best way to differentiate between emotional hunger and physical hunger is to pay attention to your symptoms. Physical hunger symptoms include a gurgling stomach, lightheadedness, or getting a headache. Emotional hunger symptoms include thinking that a specific food looking or sounding good, wanting to reward yourself, or wanting to calm down or feel better.
What can I do to stop binge eating at night?
To stop binge eating at night, you need to identify the root cause of your behavior. Start by looking at the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger, practice being kind to yourself and listening to your body, and focus on why you’re eating rather than on what you’re eating. It can also be helpful to keep a journal and write down your thoughts and emotions.
Is binge eating at night due to a food addiction?
Binge eating at night is not due to food addiction. It is often triggered by thoughts or emotions that are sometimes hidden. Our minds are incredibly adept at protecting us from unpleasant or upsetting emotions. We become so good at avoiding what’s bothering us that we don’t even know why we are triggered. We think we’re triggered by food but we’re actually triggered by a situation or emotion that we don’t see, or possibly don’t want to look at or recognize. If you’re turning to food and you don’t understand why, it’s because your mind has found a way to protect you from something else. Be curious about what that is, not critical.
How can I make healthy food choices at night?
Once you can differentiate whether you’re eating because you are physically hungry or to resolve an internal conflict, it becomes easier to make healthy food choices. You can also try to postpone eating for three minutes and see what happens. If you are physically hungry, you will probably get hungrier. Choose lean proteins, vegetables, and fruit instead of sugary sweets that will give you a quick burst of energy now, but leave you feeling even more hungry and tired later. If you are emotionally hungry, be aware of the emotional triggers that are the driving force behind your urge to eat and respond to yourself in a soothing way, with words instead of food.
Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author and radio host specializing in binge eating disorder. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, and co-editor of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Dr. Nina Show radio program on LA Talk Radio.