Breaking the habit of nighttime snacking
Discovering the different types of hunger
I lie in bed wide awake with a heavy heart and an overly full belly of food. I told myself I would not snack tonight but somehow after feeling frustrated and exhausted from my day I reached for food. First it was an apple, then a handful of crackers. Before I knew it a whole box of crackers are wolfed down along with a half a block of cheese and some cookies. I beat myself up and wonder how I can be so disgusting. I tell myself I don’t deserve to eat tomorrow. I am a failure.
This is the very common story of many of the clients we have seen over the years in our practice. To eat is simple, to navigate why we eat is a complex. For many of our clients, the evening is the most common time of the day to struggle with eating in a way that is not comfortable for them. Perhaps because of true physical hunger, food cravings, fatigue, habit, celebration or feelings of boredom or sadness.
Given the large number of our clients that struggle with their eating, all of the dietitians in our practice have training in Craving Change (a cognitive-behavioural intervention for problematic eating developed by psychologist Dr Colleen Cannon and dietitian Wendy Shah). While there are a wide range of tools, resources and activities we use to help our clients,one of the Craving Change concepts we use often is helping our clients understand the three types of hunger.
Types of Hunger
- Physical necessity to eat if the body has gone a long time without food (when you have a noticeable drop in energy or the stomach rumbles).
- Medically necessary eating (such managing blood sugars if taking insulin).
- Related to food cravings.
- A desire to eat something specific based on your senses (taste, texture, aroma or appearance).
- Emotional eating triggered by a wide range of feelings such as boredom, anxiety, anger, sadness, excitement and more.
- Could also be related to learned behaviour or habits we have formed as a result of interacting with the world or by what we are taught (such as rules about what a diet book told us was the “right” food to eat or what our parents told us about not wasting food).
Dealing With Different Types of Hunger
Before attempting to address hunger in the evening, take time to simply observe and label your hunger by the three categories. With this awareness, the next step is to explore how to address the hunger. Different types of hunger have different needs.
Satisfying Stomach Hunger
- It is very difficult to manage mouth hunger or heart hunger if you first don’t take care of stomach hunger to make sure you are adequately nourished.
- Honour and respect your body’s physical need for food by choosing not to skip meals.
- Choose not to go on a diet and deprive yourself of enough calories.
- Eat breakfast every day as one of the most important ways to fix the evening is to fix the start of the day (after all, everything is connected).
- Eat every three to five hours throughout the day to manage your energy and prevent drops in your blood sugar that will trigger overeating.
- Choose not to restrict adequate carbs, protein or fat.
- Work with a registered dietitian to help you understand the science of food and your body’s requirements.
Managing Mouth Hunger
- If stomach hunger has been addressed but you are still craving a specific food, take time to explore exactly what it is you are craving.
- Stop what I like to call “chewing around a craving” which is the act of sampling many healthy items from your kitchen to try and satisfy a particular craving for a so-called “forbidden food.”
- Take time to figure out specifically what you are craving. Is it a particular food? Is it something sweet, savoury, creamy, crunchy, warm or cold?
- Since most of us eat packages, not portions, provide yourself with a reasonable end point (buy small individual sized packages or portion out hard to manage foods).
- Remember that healthy eating can and should include soulful foods chosen for enjoyment, not nutrition.
Help for Heart Hunger
- Everyone eats for emotional reasons sometimes. It is very normal to eat when you are sad, mad, happy or stressed.
- If you are struggling regularly with stuffing uncomfortable emotions with food seek help by a registered Psychologist that specialises in emotional eating that can help.
- Begin by taking a long time to explore these three important questions What is eating me? What in my life am I hungry for that has not come my way yet? How can I comfort, soothe and nurture myself without food?