"I hear it ever single day: 'My problem is at night — I just can't stop eating!'" registered dietitian Lauren Cadillac, CLT, CPT, wrote on Instagram. She posted the above graphic of the perpetual cycle that overeating can turn into. It typically goes something like this: You restrict yourself during the day because you're too busy at work to set aside time for a decent meal, or you restrict yourself almost too much because you're trying to limit your food intake due to unhealthy guilt toward food. Then, you get home and finally feel that hunger you had all day. To satisfy that hunger, which has become intense, you lack control and overeat; shame may or may not ensue. You go to bed promising yourself that you'll do better tomorrow, and when breakfast comes around, you're either not hungry because of last night's overeating, or you limit your food again because of it. The day persists and so does this cycle.
What Is Overeating?
Lauren calls herself the "Feel Good Dietitian," and she doesn't want you to associate guilt and shame with food. She spoke with us via email to elaborate more on this cycle. First, she explained that she classifies overeating as "eating beyond comfortable fullness." This involves the one-to-10 scale of hunger/fullness, which she's talked about in the past as well. One is ravenous, around a three is comfortable hunger, around a six is comfortable fullness, and 10 is beyond that full-belly feeling you get on Thanksgiving. Eating until you're above a seven would classify as overeating, Lauren said. "Using this scale, rather than calories or portion sizes, is an individualized way to classify overeating since we all have different needs."
She believes it's more common for people to overeat at night due to daily stressors. "Most people tend to rush out the door in the morning to get to their jobs and are busy with work in the middle of the day. It is much easier to not think about food when we are occupied and stressed out," Lauren explained. For some people, even, stress can cover up their body's hunger cues (I, on occasion, get sucked into work, look up at the clock, and realize it's three hours past lunchtime and I haven't eaten, so I see where she's coming from). Lauren continued, "It's not until we get home and start to unwind that we can hear what our bodies are telling us. Many people also tend to use food to relax from a long day."
Though many nine-to-five jobs provide structure, some people have little control over their schedule, which can put daytime eating on the back burner, Lauren pointed out. She also said that others aren't even given a "true" lunch break, which requires them to work through lunchtime. "This hectic schedule doesn't allow the client to honor his or her hunger throughout the day," she said.
Tips For How to Prevent Overeating at Night
Lauren wrote online that you should try eating a bit more throughout the day. Bring snacks to work so if your schedule unexpectedly changes, you can munch on those amid the craziness. You can also have a "hold me over" snack on your way home to make sure that you don't feel below a comfortable three on the hunger/fullness scale at dinner. Lauren further said to POPSUGAR, "Many people use food to cope with emotions, and stress is a big one. Find other ways to cope with stress at night such as listening to a guided meditation on the way home from work, reading a book, or taking a warm shower."
What If You're Overeating the Entire Day?
If you find yourself overeating at every meal, not just at night, Lauren said this could be due to a few reasons. "More often than not, when we follow restrictive diets, we end up thinking about food all day long," she explained. "As always, my first recommendation is to give up the diet mentality and put all foods on the same playing field." She talks more about this in a previous interview here, but her philosophy revolves around following your hunger and fullness cues and staying away from restrictive diets that cut out major food groups. She admits that it's easier said than done for some people, so you should work with a registered dietitian if you need help.
Lauren's second suggestion would be to refrain from using food as a way to cope with emotions, as frequent overeating can be tied to that. "People can use food to attempt to meet their emotional needs in a bunch of different ways: provide a distraction from their work, get some pleasure to break up the monotony of the day, relieve stress, or attempt to get some energy to compensate for lack of sleep," she explained. "Identify what emotional need you are trying to fill and see if you can fill that need with something that isn't food, unless you are actually hungry."
For example, if you're bored during the day, try going for a walk. If you need energy, address your sleep hygiene (you probably need more shut-eye at night). If you're stress-eating, try incorporating meditation, yoga, or other management techniques into your daytime routine. And, as always, seek out a professional if you could benefit from guidance.