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How to Stop Emotional Eating in the Evening

Do you eat in the evening – and eat and eat? If so, you are not alone! Here is a sampling of the many posts about this in the forum:

“Night eating has been my number one curse. When I initiated that terrible habit then the pounds really started a rampant escalation. I have found that this is the time of night I’m fatigued, anxious, lonely and bored. Sadly to say, that an infusion of sugars actually temporarily reduces the anxiousness I feel.”

“Evenings have always been my time to graze, binge, overeat and numb out. There isn’t one simple reason for it with me, it happens for a variety of reasons but one of the primary reasons is that at the end of the day I feel “empty” and I am seeking something to fill the void with.”

“One of my issued is I am a perfectionist and would do well all day and then in the evening eat everything sweet in sight because “I was not perfect today” so I’ll eat as much as I can and surely tomorrow I will be perfect. Never happened.”

“I’ve been fine each morning and early afternoon, but once evening hits, so does my eating. I eat from early evening until I go to bed. I don’t know why, and I’m not sure how to stop it, but I need to.”

“Evenings make me anxious because of their frustrating, ambivalent nature. Is it my time of rest and relaxation, or is it the time to be productive around home, after the whole day of being productive at work? If I sit and relax, I feel guilty at the housework piling up. If I apply myself to housework, I feel resentful. The push to munch serves the purpose of dodging the issue.”

You can break out of this! Here’s how.

Why People Eat in the Evening

People have different reasons for eating in the evening, as the above quotes demonstrate. But one element is fairly universal. You’re tired, you’re tense, and your mind is filled with the stresses and problems of the day. You may have had to put up with a lot of crap with no outlet for your frustration. You may not have had a chance to sit quietly and relax all day. You’ve put out a lot of energy and effort and you need something back.

Food is a perfect solution- or at first, anyway. It’s an easy source of pleasure, and if you’re eating something carby (which is typical with emotional eating), it stimulates release of seritonin in your brain and relaxes you. When you’re feeling empty and spent, eating fills you up – symbolically and literally. It’s a way to give to yourself after giving to others all day long.

So is it any wonder that you do it?

But then there is the dark side. Your waist line expands and that’s bad enough, but your body doesn’t feel good in other ways. People choose junk food for emotional eating – processed foods filled with sugar, salt, and fat that make your body feel terrible. You end up feeling bloated and uncomfortable, and long-term, your health suffers. You end up feeling worse rather than better – and I’m not even counting the self-flagellation.

The trouble is, the immediate effect of emotional eating is reinforcing – it tastes good, feels good to eat. The bad feelings only come later.

Change Your Thinking to Change Your Actions

The way you become able to stop emotional eating is to change how you think about what you’re doing.

For starters, stop yelling at yourself for overeating in the evening. You have an emotional need and you’re filling it the only way you currently know how. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, when you’re mad at yourself, you only eat more. Treat the urge to eat as a message from your soul that you need something, and ask yourself gently and kindly what it is.

Then find other ways to meet your need – genuine ways. The only need that food truly can fill is the body’s need for fuel. If your need is emotional, a food band-aid is a temporary fix at best, and something else will work better. You just need to uncover the true need so you know what action to take. Simply knowing you feel bad is not enough.

What’s Really Bothering You?

Emotional eating serves two purposes: comfort, and distraction from uncomfortable feelings. Once you act on an emotional eating urge, it’s very hard to figure out what you’re comforting and distracting yourself from because you’re already distracted.

So pause. Don’t act on the urge right away. Pause and sit with the uncomfortable feelings for a little while, and see what comes up. Wait at least 15 minutes. You can do anything for 15 minutes! You may still end up eating, but those 15 minutes are 15 minutes of recovery. You have to be able to pause before you can stop.

During the pause, sit quietly and think – don’t watch TV or do something else distracting. Just sit. All kinds of thoughts will leap into your mind, and if you’re paying attention, you will discover what you really need. From my book, Normal Eating® for Normal Weight:

“Often people eat in the evening after a long day of work. If this is your pattern, then you may simply need to relax and do something that feels good. In that case, a comfort activity like a warm bath could be an effective action. But if you’re eating in the evening because you feel lonely coming home to an empty house, or you’re mad at your husband for not helping with children and dinner, then a warm bath is not going to fix the problem. Nor will a warm bath help if you’re unhappy in your job. You don’t have to up and quit, but you can at least look through job listings. If you have no time to yourself, you can work on ways to make time. What’s important is that the action address the unmet need. It has to do more than just soothe.”

Years ago when I worked at a bank, I used to come home and automatically start eating. I realized that eating was serving as a transition ritual for me – marking the end of the work day and the beginning of the part of the day that was mine. So instead of eating, I started marking the end of the workday by taking off my work clothes and going outside for a walk in my civvies. Moving let me work out some tension, and as it became a habit, it started to serve the function of an end-of-work ritual – moving me out of the work mindset. Plus walking is pleasant.

Sometimes, just letting what’s bothering you into awareness is enough to dissolve the craving. But with evening eating, you’ll probably need to take some sort of action to address the true need. You may not completely solve the problem – probably you won’t – but just taking the action can have a remarkable effect on compulsive eating urges.

Something to Try…

The next time you have an urge to emotionally eat in the evening, pause for 15 minutes before acting on the urge. You may end up eating anyway (this time), but that’s okay. The 15 minutes you pause are 15 minutes of recovery. You have to be able to pause before you can stop.

Spend the 15 minutes sitting quietly and doing nothing. Don’t listen to music, don’t watch TV, don’t read a book. Just sit and be, allow whatever thoughts are banging around in your head to surface into consciousness. You will probably discover what you really need. If you’re not hungry, it isn’t food.

And then take an action towards solving the real problem – a small action, something that takes you less than 15 minutes. You probably won’t completely solve it, but taking the action will remove feelings of powerlessness and can shift your outlook dramatically.

And then report back! How did it go? Please post your experience.

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24 comments to How to Stop Emotional Eating in the Evening

  • Lisa (Xanadu) Lisa (Xanadu)

    It wasn’t evening, but I tried this today when I hit “boiling point” with my rebellious 3-year-old. I suddenly just wanted to start grabbing stuff out of the fridge. Instead, I fed her, put her down for her nap, and when I sat I had the thought, “Everything is falling to pieces– the house is cluttered, we’re moving, and these #%^!@ buttons on my shirt keep sliding out of the buttonholes and showing my bra!”

    Well, the buttonholes turned out to be the 15-minute thing I could do. I threaded a needle and fixed my shirt. After I did that, I thought, “Well, I *did* just clean the kitchen last night, and sweep the bathroom today, and go grocery shopping at 2 different stores so we can eat more healthfully!” One little moment of efficacy reminded me of the others!

  • Lisa (Xanadu) Lisa (Xanadu)

    BTW evenings after 8 are a trigger for me, because I don’t get to relax between 5, when I pick up my daughter, and 8, when she goes to bed. (You’re exactly right, Sheryl, it’s like I have to grab pleasure once it’s mine for the night!) I think my husband actually feels the same way, which is why he always wants a full dinner even if he’s not that hungry.

    Lately it’s been easier for me to not necessarily eat a large meal at night. Or even much of a meal, if I ate a late lunch. I guess I just reached a point where the allure of food as an escape didn’t outweigh the consequences of feeling too full and still out of touch with my real needs. Sometimes I’ll send an email to a friend, or watch a TV show I like, or take a walk, or snuggle with my husband. Those things really hit the spot better than chicken Kiev and ice cream!

  • Nighttime eating certainly has been an issue for me and it’s exactly what you describe, Sheryl. I work a long day, have a long commute, try to fit in a workout when I can, and by the time I get home I feel as if I’m falling apart and that the only thing that can make me feel better is eating lots of high fat, sugar and carby things until I feel full, calm and zoned out. And then most of that eating I do in front of the TV. It’s been hard to pause but I can truly see it is the way out of this vicious cycle, mainly because it just seems like more work and I’m looking to escape work.

    My other vulnerable times are late morning at work, and then after lunch. It’s funny, because I have fewer impulses to overeat on the weekends, so it really seems to be a work-related thing, or transition thing. And I love my job, so what’s up with that?

    Much to think about. And pause about, apparently.

  • McKenzie McKenzie

    I come home after work to an empty apartment. It’s just me and the dog. Lately, I can’t even go walk the dog because of severe foot pain. I know the trigger. I’m very lonely. I moved to NYC last year, have no friends in the area, and have no man in my life since my divorce 5 years ago. I never had children, my husband didn’t want any. So, I’m alone, and although I have friends all around the country I don’t have any close by to hang out with. So every evening and every weekend is spent alone unless I travel to see friends. I try to get out and meet people, I’m very friendly and outgoing, but in NY it seems people must prefer being alone. So, I allow myself treats and suffer from it. I’m now 205 lbs (at 5ft 3in) and can’t even pretend it’s not a health problem anymore and still I cannot stop. I am attractive and fun to be with and I haven’t been on a date since Christmas. I just don’t get how to break into this place.

  • Hi McKenzie,

    I know it may seem hard to believe and it’s not how you feel, but the problem is not entirely in your situation, or even mostly in your situation. It’s in how you are thinking about it, which is making you feel so powerless and depressed.

    The other piece of this is something I talk about at length in my book. People with addictive tendencies don’t like to feel bad or uncomfortable ever, even temporarily. Moving to a new place is difficult, and you’re bound to face some temporary adjustment problems. But they don’t last forever. The hard truth that all people recovering from addiction must face is this: Sometimes in life, you just have to feel bad. If you have my book, I would urge you to read the chapter on “The Nature of Addiction”.

    Lastly, as you well know, whatever the problems you face, eating doesn’t help. So do things that help. It’s your job to take care of yourself in the best way you know how.

    - Sheryl

  • Catherine Catherine

    This is my first comment on this site. What really amazes me about all of this is the fact that I can think about all of these truths you are all saying but yet when that compulsion hits, I am like a moth to a light. I don’t beat myself up about it anymore, but I wake up thinking positively but by evening I have “zigzagged” back to overeating again.

  • Hi Catherine,

    The trick is baby steps. First try to pause. You have to be able to pause before you can stop. Pause for 5 minutes before eating, and just sit quietly and experience your feelings – see what comes up. Then see if you can pause another 5 minutes. You’ll be inserting a time of quiet where you check in with yourself between impulse and action – this is the crucial action. Even a pause of 5 minutes is a success. Each time, try to make the pause longer. This will allow you to get a handle on what’s going on, and eventually turn the pause into a stop. There are more details in my book.

    - Sheryl

  • Annelies Annelies

    Hi Catherine,

    I have exactly the same problem. When I read the book and the articles I feel confident that I can do it, but then when I’m tired after a long day I just want to relax, don’t want to think about anything, just eat. Even just pausing is too much to ask then – and even if I do pause, I still want to eat 15 minutes later.

    Is that continued urge supposed to go away naturally if you keep pausing (eventually) or should I try something else to make it work for me? I really love the normal eating idea and I think it’s completely right, but I just don’t seem to be able to apply it to my own life…

    Thanks,
    Annelies

  • Annelies,

    I think the answer lies in the uncomfortable truth about recovery from emotional eating. From the chapter on “The Nature of Addiction” in Normal Eating for Normal Weight:

    “The crucial lesson that a person recovering from addiction must learn is this: Sometimes in life, you just have to feel bad. This is crucially important, so I’ll say it again: Sometimes in life, you just have to feel bad.”

    And from the chapter on Stage 3:

    There is no way to stop emotional eating without discomfort. Expect it – brace yourself for it.

    “To stop emotional eating, you must be willing to tolerate some discomfort – it’s that simple. That’s not what someone with an addictive personality wants to hear (see the chapter on “The Nature of Addiction”), but that is the fact. Sometimes in life, you just have to feel bad.

    Change comes in this order: First your actions change, then your thinking changes, and then – last – your feelings change. The discomfort of sitting with cravings will only go away after you stop acting on the cravings. That’s because it’s only when you stop acting on the cravings that the cravings disappear.

    (Boldface added.)

    I think you have to decide whether you are willing to tolerate the discomfort necessary to stop doing this. There is no other way.

    - Sheryl

  • Annelies Annelies

    Dear Sheryl,

    Thanks for your quick reply! You’re right about the need to tolerate discomfort, and the thing is that I’m perfectly willing to tolerate it when I’m reading the book and more generally during ’strong’ moments – but somehow those good intentions tend to disappear once the craving hits, then I feel like I don’t have the ability to make my own decisions anymore. Textbook definition of addiction I guess.

    I don’t know how to overcome those ‘weak’ moments though, it’s like I have no control over it so even when I’m completely willing to tolerate discomfort (like now), that goes out the window during those weak moments. Technically I know what to do instead (reflect on my feelings, go for a walk, go on the forum, etc) but I just don’t do it during those moments… so frustrating!

    Anyway, I’m going to keep trying, first with pausing and then hopefully eventually with stopping, because I really do want to get rid of this addiction (i.e. compulsive eating)! If anyone has any concrete tips how to handle those weak moments they would be more than welcome.

    Thanks for your help!
    Annelies

  • The trick is baby steps. It’s not black-or-white, that you either succeed or fail. Insert a pause between impulse and action. Make it 5 minutes at first. Then make it 15 minutes. Then 45 minutes. The longer you pause, the more likely you are to find what’s underneath the craving, what you really need. If you’re not hungry, then what you really need is not food. Once you know what you really need, you can take action on your own behalf. But you have to endure that discomfort to get there – the discomfort of having a craving and not acting on it.

    You can do it! Impulse does not have to mean action.

    - Sheryl

  • This is a wonderful post highlighting one of the most useful tips for breaking the habit of nighttime binge eating: PAUSE. Many of my nutritional counseling clients struggle with food addictions and overeating after work. Learning to pause and connect with underlying needs makes a huge difference. The acronym HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) sums up four underlying emotional needs that commonly trigger mindless food consumption and other addictive behaviors. “HALT”-ing in the evening – or any time of day – offers the bonus benefit of helping to reduce general stress and anxiety, making for a calmer, happier – and slimmer – person overall!

  • Julia Julia

    Okay, I get it that sometimes in life you just have to feel bad. But what I still struggle with is that so much of the time when I tap into what I “really need” (i.e. not the food) it’s something that is not attainable. Like I need support, but my support system is tapped out; or I need rest, but I’m too anxious to sleep; or I need love and connection, but I do not have a partner; or I need empathy and compassion, but there is no one to give it to me. In fact, it seems that most of my deep-down, under-the-food needs are often things that another person would have to give or help give and that is, of course, out of my control. Whereas making a hot fudge sundae is totally in my control and is consistently satisfying. It *feels* so much like nurture, when I can’t seem to find nurture elsewhere. Are my options to either A. Walk around feeling bad or B. Eat numbing food compulsively? I often find I don’t even want to know what my under-the-food need is because there are so many myriad needs and the complexity of meeting even one (need more rest but have to work? rearrange your life so you can have different work, etc. etc.) seems overwhelming, let along when there are dozens all clamoring at the same time.

  • Julia,

    You can’t necessarily fix the problem instantly. Sometimes you have to acknowledge difficult situations and you just have to feel bad. People with addictive personalities don’t like to ever feel bad – they try to fix bad feelings chemically. Sometimes, you need to start taking steps towards fixing problems in the long term. Feeling trapped in a bad situation is a common trigger for emotional eating, so taking an action – even an action that doesn’t completely solve the problem – can help quite a bit.

    - Sheryl

  • Alyssa Alyssa

    Hi,

    Just want to say that this is some fantastic down-to-earth information, and I agree with your views on addiction – that addictive types cannot bear to feel uncomfortable – this is so familiar to me!

    I looked into this some time ago when i was struggling badly with caffeine, chocolate and cigarette smoking, and all 3 of these substances stimulate dopamine release. Do you think overeating of any food is a dopamine thing as well as serotonin? I’ve been on SSRI antidepressants before now and they didn’t really stop the food cravings, especially when hormonal! So I’m wondering if you think its a combination of serotonin/dopamine, and if there’s a way to get over this?

    Also, you mention not distracting yourself with TV – I’ve been thinking for a while now that I’d like to just get rid of the TV altogether – nothing but rubbish on anyway, and it always plays a part in my overeating!

    Thanks
    Alyssa

  • Watching TV while eating is used by people as a total numb-out drug. If you want to watch TV, just watch TV. If you want to eat, eat. Don’t do the two together. If either one alone is boring, that tells you something.

    - Sheryl

  • Debbie Karper Debbie Karper

    Thank you Sheryl for sharing all these ideas I have struggled with evening eating for a long time now, and the results lay around my waist! I love to go and do things but in the evenings I am sometimes too tired to get back out. And now I need to lose weight more than ever, I have rods in both femurs and a plate in my arm and a bar in my hip and lots of metal in my left ankle and lower left leg I am 167 pounds and 5′2 that equals one beach ball that still wants to bounce!! I was walking and felt great but the doctor suggested that I wait until the bone in the right femur grew together a little more. Now it is Spring and I am ready to go!!! In my mind but my body just wants to eat! :( I am going to start swimming in the evenings but the eating in the evenings has been a challenge for some time now! I am going to pause and listen to what is really going on although it is evident there is a lot going on in my body and I fight to get back to normal again and active. A car pulled in front of me 2-20-2011 while I was on my motorcycle. I work in an office so at the end of the day I am ready to rest. Guess it was the only thing I still had control over but that is going to change and I am getting your book thanks alot!

  • Hi Debbie,

    It sounds like you may need some support to help you in the evenings. You could join the Normal Eating Forum. There’s great support there. There’s a fee, but not much. There’s more info here:

    http://normaleating.com/support_group_info.php

    - Sheryl

  • Shelly Shelly

    Although I have not gained weight (that stuck) until the last 10 years, (and that includes 9 pregnancies!), I can honestly say that I have been having evening binges at least since high school (I am now in my 50’s).

    It is truly amazing to read these posts. I have NEVER had a conversation that had any meaning or answers regarding this topic.Thank God I found this-

    It is the middle of the night, and I actually woke up with a serious stomachache from all of the food that I ate after returning home from a VERY emotionally difficult day at work (I work as a therapist- but DO NOT get enough emotional support /supervision).

    I VERY rarely watch TV or movies, it makes me anxious to sit that long and think of all of the things that I have to do. Sometimes I wish that I did- it would give me a place to chill after work (we don’t allow eating in the TV room in our house- so that would not be an issue). I have even fantisized smoking- just to chill. But I have never even tried a cigarette, as I am so terrified that I would get addicted- and I am so dead set against them. I wish that I felt the same about junk food.

    So often I feel like the Eric Carle children’s book- The Hungry Caterpillar. In the story the caterpillar eats one food after another after another until he feels really full and then wraps himself up in a cocoon and later wakes up as a beautiful butterfly. Sadly- when I eventually wake up after eating one thing after another after another, I just feel fatter and hate myself!
    my question is-

    When I return home I actually do feel hungry, as usually I haven’t eaten for a long time (since lunch or even before). I can even go food shopping on the way home from work, and refrain from buying junk foods or eating in the car on the drive home. But I do want a meal when I get back. I start with a real dinner (often my husband has already prepared one for the kids), but then its one more thing and one more thing, and my cravings start leading down a long path that always ends in my feeling sick to my stomach and hating myself well into the next morning. Then the only thing that starts to make that feeling lift “the morning after” is exercising, which I can’t always get to- so, the whole thing cycles back into itself.

    Honestly- I need to feel that I am taking a step- even a baby step- out of this “pigging out to feel better/chill and then feeling awful about myself” cycle. I like the 15 minute pause idea and I will try it. The question is- when do I do it? I am truly in need of nourishment when I return home, I actually start out hungry. Only after that- it become a binge.

  • Hi Shelly,

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. I put your message aside to answer when I had time, and it took this long before I could read it carefully.

    It sounds like you know what’s wrong – that you need more emotional support and nurturing than you are getting. Is this perhaps true personally as well as professionally? Can you take steps to fix this?

    - Sheryl

  • Rebecca Rebecca

    Hi! I wanted to say that this advice is all very insightful! I’ve know for a while that my biggest issue with weight loss is that window after work and before bed. I have a lot of hobbies, knitting, drawing, writing, reading, hula hoop dancing…they are all healthy and creative interests. However, my brain is so hardwired to believe food is the most instant way to happiness that even if I sit at work all day thinking about how great a warm bath would be or a cup of tea by a fire I still walk in the door, drop my stuff and head straight for the food.

    And it’s A LOT of food. I think my best bet is to start doing the 15 minutes of just stopping. It’s difficult since I am a college student living at home so when I walk in the door there’s a lot of people asking how my day was. I know the first thing I do is go downstairs to change my clothes, and there is no food down there so I am going to change my clothes and then just sit for 15 fifteen minutes. Perhaps it will be just the thing to remind that what would really relax me is to watercolor a picture or write a few pages of a short story instead of eating until I want to puke. I am usually genuinely hungry after work, since it is about four hours after lunch, but in the right mindset I often make healthy foods and not a ton of it.

    I am 21, so not very old, but I have been struggling with weight since I was a child. I actually had an eating disorder when I was younger but no one noticed because I never reached a terribly thin weight. I lost 60 lbs but it was through eating hardly ever and exercising for hours after school. Eventually I couldn’t keep up with that lifestyle and I gained it all back and plenty more. I have a good 100lbs to spare but I think I’ve grown and matured a lot and, while I’ve read plenty about being healthy and exercising properly, there are things in my life that cause my emotional overeating that exercise and healthy foods won’t help.

    Sorry that was so long, but this page has opened my eyes a lot! I often feel like my weight loss journey is a puzzle that stalls and I just can’t see what I’m missing. The advice given here has opened another door in the puzzle and I’m on my way again. :)

    Thank you so much!

  • Hi Rebecca,

    Maybe also things in your life are bothering you. That also can be a major factor. It’s important to think about that. Are you happy?

    - Sheryl

  • elena elena

    Sheryl pleaee help me!

  • Elena, if you would like to talk to me about personal counseling over Skype, please use the Contact form to send me email.

    Information about personal counseling:
    http://normaleating.com/coaching.php

    Contact form:
    http://normaleating.com/blog/contact/

    - Sheryl

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