I don't know if anyone has ever actually studied how many people struggle with this but I would hazard a guess at tens of millions. If ONLY I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, "I do so good all day but then I blow it in the evening because I can't stop eating chips" (or whatever their "comfort food" of choice is).
So, why does that happen?
It happens for sooo very many different reasons that I could not possible begin to get into them ALL in one post or tell you exactly what's causing it for you on any given day - because that's the thing - it happens for different reasons on different days, for different people.
But almost all of them come down to the stories we're telling ourselves and the way our brains drive our choices as a result of those stories.
1. The stories you're telling yourself about food.
In 2008 I was referred to an eating disorder therapist for binge eating. The first thing he told me was that I needed to stop dieting/trying to restrict certain foods. I was aghast. Couldn't he see how fat I was? Didn't he know I was there so he could help me stop bingeing so I could actually stick to a diet. Stop restricting bad foods? Was he crazy? I'm not supposed to eat those things. I want to be healthy! I have to work even harder to not eat those things - I can't ALLOW myself to have them. <- that's what I thought when he said that. But the truth is, he was right. The answer to learning to "eat healthier" or even lasting weight loss lies in removing the restrictions, labels and rules. Everything we've been taught about what we're supposed to do to "eat right" is contributing to all the ways we struggle to do exactly that. The story that certain foods are "good" and certain foods are "bad" and you have to eliminate all the "bad" foods if you want to be skinny, and healthy and worthy is causing you to overeat or binge in the evenings because we're not designed to live that way. When you're trying to force yourself to "be good" and eat what you think you're supposed to eat to accomplish that, you set yourself up for overeating or bingeing at night. The harder you try to "be good", control your intake and the more you feel like you're restricting things through the day, the more at risk you are for this and the worst the night time snacking will likely be. It happens because of the way our brains are wired - they are not designed to support food restriction. That's not a normal way to go through life. Grab a copy of my free ebook for more on why.
2. The stories you're telling yourself about... well, anything and everything that happens through the day.
A few examples of what I mean by that:
One client told me she came home and dove into the box of cookies after work and had no idea why. After we did some digging together, we discovered it was because the dishes weren't done. She'd been at work all day and she felt like if her kids cared about her, they'd have done the dishes so she wouldn't have to when she got home. The story she was telling herself was that she wasn't loved or valued enough - which prompted self-punishing behaviors.
Another client talked about diving into chips after work one day and after some digging we discovered it was because she was feeling overwhelmed and ineffective - she judged her house to be a mess, her schedule to have un-done tasks left on it and she decided she wasn't getting enough done every day. The story that she was telling herself about her own abilities was that she wasn't working hard enough or capable enough - which again, prompted self-punishing behaviors.
Another client dove into pastries because she felt unsafe and they reminded her of feelings of safety from childhood. The story she was telling herself was that the world was unsafe. Anxiety drove uncomfortable feelings that prompted her to soothe that anxiety in the only way she knew how.
When we're eating for reasons other than physical hunger, in ways that don't make us feel good, there is an underlying story or cause.
Your job is understanding it so you can begin to rewrite it or learn to respond to that stimuli differently next time.
Most night time snacking is the result of a combination of few things, the things I already mentioned but also, sometimes it may even be as simple as being tired - not getting enough sleep messy with your hunger hormones and drives you to want to eat more.
But no matter what the cause, if you keep trying to force yourself to stop it and judging yourself for it without understanding exactly what's driving it for you, the chances you'll ever change it are slim to none because those things just add fuel to the reasons it's happening in the first place. My clients stop night-time without even trying because my system guides them through the process of understanding what's causing it and gives them tools to practice that are designed to change whatever the cause is. If one night it's just because you're tired, you can learn to just go to bed instead. Sometimes, just the permission element alone is enough to stop it because your brain's survival center stops freaking out over the restrictions.
But it all starts with giving yourself permission to eat what you want through the day so your "willpower" isn't depleted by evening (remember the more you try to restrict all day, the more at risk you are for night time snacking) and giving yourself permission to snack at night so you start getting curious about the cause because when your thoughts aren't all judgy and obsessive over the fact that you're eating chips when you think you're not supposed to, you can 1) start putting them to use reflecting on why you even want the chips in the first place and 2) can learn to either have a couple chips and enjoy them or stop even wanting them in the first place.
It sounds crazy but it works.
I went from having so little self control with potato chips that I'd eat any entire large bag in one sitting and still want more to almost never even eating chips anymore at all because I rarely want them - and my clients do the same. The more scared you are to just allow yourself some chips while you work on understanding what's driving you to want them, the more you likely need to through that process. If you need help or don't fully understand how to start implementing this strategy on your own, shoot me a message. I'd be happy to help clarify and give you more direction.