Resorting to comfort eating at night – hunkering down with a bowl of ice cream or a salty snack at the end of the day – is a pattern many smart, busy women struggle with. When you’ve worked hard all day, especially if there hasn’t been much time for you, it’s natural to want a reward, some comfort, and some down time.
The problem is obvious. Comfort eating at night is often what sabotages so many hours of effort and healthy eating. What is intended as a reward can leave you feeling bad or frustrated, and off track with your goals. Even worse, comfort eating at the end of the day usually takes place when you’re distracted, tired, or zoned out. Most women don’t even fully savor and enjoy the “treats” they are rewarding themselves with.
The solution to comfort eating at the end of the day isn’t to sit on your hands or run yourself ragged so that you don’t have time to think about food. The real solution is to find ways to provide yourself what you are really craving – what food is really the placeholder for.
Comfort eating happens for a reason.
You’re a smart woman, and the eating you are doing – even when you aren’t really hungry – fulfills a need. Figure out how to get what you’re craving in ways that are not food, and the food starts to lose a lot of its appeal. Really.
5 steps to stop comfort eating at night
Reaching for something to eat at the end of the day is often a habitual way of putting on the brakes. When you are used to going, going, going, and you have a constant to-do list counting down in your head, it can be a challenge to allow yourself to really stop. Adrenaline and stress and the societal pressures to “stay connected” to screens and social media all make it difficult to stop working, thinking, or planning, and that’s exactly what your brain, your body, and your heart probably need at the end of the day. Resist the urge to do “one more thing.” Establish a cut-off time when your work and chores end. Consider banning phones and computers for a period each evening. Explore ways to stop at the end of the day that aren’t related to reaching for something to eat or drink.
2. Acknowledge what you feel or need
Comfort eating at night is usually a way of trying to take care of yourself, but, since you probably don’t need the calories, it’s really a substitute or a “band-aid” for something else. Without stopping, it’s almost impossible to be in touch with what you are needing or feeling. That bowl of chips can become an autopilot way of responding to what’s going on that you’ve been too busy to register. Take a few moments at the end of the day to ask yourself what you know about how you are feeling, and what you really need. Don’t censor yourself or worry that what you need is impossible to provide. Compassion begins when you acknowledge your reality and what you need, want, and crave.
3. If you’re tired, be tired
I wish I could accurately measure how much comfort eating happens as a way to medicate or fight off exhaustion. Whether you’re trying to perk up so you can “do more,” or you’re staying up late because it’s the only time you’ve had for you all day, ignoring exhaustion has major negative consequences – including overeating. Respond to your need for sleep and rest and everything else becomes easier – really. In this situation, your best move is almost certainly to sleep now and work to move me-time to an earlier place in your day (even if it means getting up earlier).
4. Numbness does not equal comfort
The next step to stop comfort eating at night is to consider the role that zoning out plays in your evening. If your evening activities (and eating) are a means of escaping, pushing away your day, or numbing out, then they probably aren’t truly comforting or nourishing you – because you aren’t fully present to absorb the “benefits.” If you find yourself caught in an evening cycle of numbing out, circle back through steps two and three. Most importantly, make sure you aren’t making the big mistake I see daily –creating an alternative to comfort eating that completely disrespects what you feel or need or that you’re tired. (For example, deciding that you are going to give up snacking in the evening and clean out your closet instead. Cleaning out your closet probably doesn’t address what you feel or need in this moment, and I’m guessing it isn’t “comforting.”)
5. Embrace ritual
Comfort eating at night is probably a habit or a ritual. So is pulling out your phone when you’re bored, checking your email or Facebook, or automatically asking yourself what you “have to do next.” To stop comfort eating at night, you’ll want to create new, better rituals that encompass stopping, checking in with your needs and your feelings, and respecting your need for downtime and rest. Don’t expect to nail the “perfect” routine right away. Start with what you already know would feel better and start experimenting. Consider how you can routinely provide comfort or more relaxation for yourself at the end of the day. If sitting down with something good to eat signals a transition or an “end” for you, what can you try instead? The beauty of a helpful ritual is that it can become automatic and it can eliminate the need to make the “right” decision over and over each day. Often the easiest way to create an end of day ritual is to work backward. Decide on your goal bedtime and work backward from there to create an optimal wind-down routine that feels good to you.
The best part of this five step plan, is that, with practice, you’ll end up with a way to take care of yourself at the end of the day that really does take care of you, and that works much better than comfort eating.
Take good care,