Do you nibble after dinner? Or raid the fridge at midnight? Naturopath Jayne Tancred has six strategies to get your snacking back on track.
If you eat most of your daily food (or calories) after dinner, or get up at night to eat, you may have Night-eating Syndrome (NES). NES is commonly associated with sleeping problems, obesity, depression, stress, binge-eating, and, in diabetics, poor blood glucose regulation.
In a study in Obesity, eating during normal sleeping time caused a whopping 48 percent weight increase. Even if your night-time snacking is only occasional, it’s still worth addressing it, especially if you’re overweight. In one study, reported in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, one in two people trying to lose weight said that night-time snacking played a large part in their weight problem; in another, in the International Journal of Obesity Related Metabolic Disorders, women who ate at night gained an average of 5.2 kilos over six years, while those who didn’t gained less than one kilo.
1. Try hypnotherapy
Sydney hypnotherapist Joe Levonian from Hypnotic Solutions says hypnotherapy can help break emotional and habitual eating patterns that occur without thinking.
“Our habits program us in the same way the bell in Pavlov’s famous study conditioned dogs to salivate in anticipation of food. In hypnosis we use suggestion to change conditioned tendencies to over-eating in response to emotions (both happy and sad), or to eating that is triggered by outside circumstances” he explains. “For example, if you always snack while watching television, just sitting on the couch may trigger a desire to eat. Hypnosis can remove those conditioned responses so that you’re more aware and have conscious control of the negative eating pattern.”
To get out of the habit of snacking in the evenings, replace that behaviour pattern with something else. “Phone a friend, read a book, water the garden, or walk the dog,” says Levonian. “The different activity or environment creates a positive habit in place of the snacking.”
To find a hypnotherapist near you, visit http://www.ahahypnotherapy.org.au/
2. Turn off the television
By distracting you while you’re eating, TV distorts your ability to form vivid memories of the food you’ve consumed, and without that conscious memory, you’re more likely to over-eat later in the day, says a study in Appetite. Watching TV also exposes you to advertisements for unhealthy foods: research published in Health Psychology says that this increases your tendency eat, even if the foods available aren’t the same ones you’ve seen on TV, and even if you’re not hungry.
3. Switch to cereal
If you’re prone to night snacking, at least eat something that helps the situation, such as a small bowl of whole-grain cereal. A study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition shows that night snackers who eat cereal with low-fat milk or soy 90 minutes after dinner consume fewer calories in the evening and across the entire day. Over a month, participants in this study lost an average of 840 grams; those who didn’t eat the cereal lost less than 200 grams.
4. Balance your blood sugar
Given the links between diabetes, obesity and night eating, you should get your blood sugar checked if you’re prone to excessive night-snacking. If you’ve already got diabetes, night-snacking may increase your susceptibility to complications; even if you don’t have diabetes, night-snacking increases your odds of developing it. Skipping breakfast can set you up for fluctuating blood sugar levels during the day. Even though many night eaters have no appetite in the morning, a high protein, low GI (glycaemic index) breakfast will regulate appetite and restore your body to a more natural hunger cycle.
5. Address stress
A study in the British Journal of Psychiatry shows that snacking on the wrong foods triggers depressive disorders. Participants who snacked on a lot of sweetened desserts, fried foods and refined cereal snack bars were far more likely to have anxiety and depression. Are you eating because you’re hungry? Or are you actually angry, lonely, worried or upset? According to Diabetes Care, using food to block out uncomfortable emotions is common among night eaters. Enhancing stress-coping skills may help.
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) systematically trains you to make better decisions. The American Journal of Psychotherapy says CBT has been shown to promote weight loss, decrease calorie consumption after dinner, substantially reduce the frequency of night eating episodes, and improve depressed moods in NES patients. Your healthcare professional can refer you to a CBT provider.
6. Get into the groove
According to Sleep Medicine Review, night eating is a circadian rhythm dysfunction where the body’s eating and sleeping cycles occur too close together, disrupting the neurotransmitter serotonin. Medical treatment may involve selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), drugs which help restore circadian rhythms. St John's wort also has documented effects against depression and works in part via a similar mechanism, so hypothetically could be a viable natural alternative, although to date no research confirms this.
Similarly, it’s been demonstrated that women with NES sleep less and have less efficient sleep, so taking herbal medicines like valerian that induce sleep may reduce the night waking and night-time snacking episodes.
7. See if you have SRED
Getting out of bed to eat without having awareness or memory of doing it is indicative of a syndrome called sleep-related eating disorder (SRED). If this happens to you, chat with your doctor urgently. It’s important to rule out an adverse reaction from prescribed medicines, especially the hypnotic sedative zolpidem, marketed in Australia as Stilnox, Stilnoxium, Dormizol, Zolpibell, Zolpixdem-Ac, and Stildem.