The Why You May Be Experiencing Late Night Cravings
One of the most common problems clients come to me with is that they repeatedly experience cravings late at night. This desire to eat more food often occurs shortly after dinner, and typically favors foods that are higher in calories, sugar and fat, and are generally lower in nutrient quality. Many of the foods we “crave” tend to fall into the category of snack or dessert items, and, in some cases, may be foods we subconsciously associate with feelings of comfort.
When we consistently experience and give in to cravings, we tend to chalk it up to a “lack of willpower”, and feel a need to set stricter rules around what we can and cannot eat in order to improve that (which, FYI, doesn’t work!). Instead, what we need to focus on first in this process is determining the root cause of our cravings. In the majority of cases, there is much more happening mentally and physically than just a lack of willpower.
Follow along below as I go through four common causes for late night cravings, all of which I have experienced personally. Think about your own experiences as you read through them - are there any that you relate to?
Four Common Causes For Late Night Cravings (& What You Can Do About It!)
- You’re not eating enough throughout the day.
If you’re eating a fairly calorie-restrictive diet, tend to skip meals due to busyness at work or “forgetting” to eat, or are simply not consuming enough to support your activity level, it is probable that your body will still be hungry at the end of the day. Especially at the end of the day when we are fighting both hunger and tiredness, we will oftentimes migrate toward readily available items that will easily (and quickly) satisfy our hunger, such as pre-packaged and highly palatable snack foods.
What you can do:
Start by keeping a food journal for one week. Record what you eat, what times you eat, and how you are feeling - both mentally and physically - at those times. The purpose of this is to provide you with accurate feedback relating to your eating habits and calorie consumption. Review and reflect on it at the end of the week, and be honest:
Are you intentionally, or unintentionally, skipping meals?
Are you actively restricting the amount of food you eat throughout the day?
If your activity levels are very high, are you eating enough to match that?
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, then there may be a high likelihood that your cravings are a result of underconsumption. Reach out to a knowledgeable and unbiased source, such as a nutrition coach, who can help you implement positive habit changes and hold you accountable.
- You’re psychologically depriving yourself.
Adopting a “black and white” mindset toward food encourages the separation of food into “good” versus “bad” categories.This often leads us to create “food rules”, in which we designate certain “bad” foods as “off limits” and restrict them from our diet. On the outside, this may appear to be a reasonable approach to filtering our food intake and fueling our body with proper nutrition only. However, telling ourselves that we cannot have something naturally leads our brain to hyper-fixate on it, thus intensifying the desire for that “something”. As you continue to psychologically deprive yourself of certain foods, the cravings for them will continue to grow stronger, thus amplifying the problem that you were trying to control in the first place.
What you can do:
Self-reflection is a crucial step to understanding your own thoughts and habits, and providing yourself with the initial knowledge needed to begin making meaningful change. Start by asking yourself:
What foods do you tend to crave most at night?
Are they foods you tend to classify as “good”, or foods you classify as “bad”? Why do you see these foods in this way?
Long-term psychological deprivation changes how our brain is wired relating to food. You may not notice how you perceive or speak about food until you make a conscious effort to do so. However, once you are aware of how your thoughts and words contribute to the development of cravings, you can begin the process of reversing it.
Rebuilding your relationship with food is a challenging and lengthy process. Find a nutrition coach or Registered Dietician who demonstrates an all-inclusive approach to nutrition, and continuously guides you down a path of acceptance and food-freedom.
- It’s a habit.
Physical hunger will present itself through physical symptoms such as growling in the stomach, fatigue, brain fog and lightheadedness. Cravings, on the other hand, are rooted in emotion, and therefore, will present very differently. Oftentimes, when we experience a true emotion-based food craving, it will come about fairly suddenly and express as a deep “desire” or “want” for very specific foods, regardless of physical hunger levels. Boredom or understimulation, anxiety, sadness, loneliness and anger are common emotions that may trigger food cravings. Over time, as we consistently act on cravings in response to these emotions, that response becomes a habit.
What you can do:
Begin by understanding the differences between emotional and physical hunger. Here are some basic guidelines to get you started:
Physical hunger typically presents itself through physical symptoms such as:
- Rumbling or growling in the stomach
- Decreases in energy
- Mental fog or difficulty focusing
Physical hunger typically occurs several hours after eating a meal and builds gradually over time. It doesn’t yield a desire for specific foods, as any food will sound appealing when you are simply looking to satisfy a physical sensation. Finally, your intention behind eating will be to decrease symptoms of hunger.
Emotional hunger, on the other hand, typically presents itself through cognitive symptoms such as a strong desire for very specific food items, often referred to as “cravings”. In most cases, emotional hunger occurs suddenly and is independent of time, meaning you can experience a desire to eat despite feeling physically full. Instead, the desire to eat is often accompanied by feelings of anxiousness, stress, boredom, sadness or loneliness (just to name a few). Finally, your intention behind eating is not to satisfy feelings of hunger, and is instead to satisfy a cognitive craving for a specific food.
Once you understand the difference between the two, you can then begin to reflect and evaluate your cravings. Start by pausing when you experience a craving and checking in with yourself. Instead of automatically reaching for food, first determine if your desire to eat is truly due to physical hunger, or if there is an emotional attachment to it.
- Gut Dysbiosis
Gut dysbiosis is an imbalance of gut microbiota, which typically presents itself through IBS-like symptoms such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea and abdominal pain. However, another symptom of gut dysbiosis that is often overlooked is strong food cravings, specifically for those high in sugar. In certain cases, the imbalance within the gut is caused by an overgrowth of bacteria. This bacteria thrives on the consumption of sugar, as it is necessary in order for them to survive and multiply. As a result, the individual often experiences high levels of sugar cravings, which can feel nearly impossible to combat.
What you can do:
Evaluate your symptoms. If you’re experiencing repetitive sugar cravings, along with consistent digestive upset, contact a doctor that specializes in digestive disorders to determine if there are any underlying causes.
If you were able to personally relate to any of the above, you’re not alone. Late night cravings are one of the most common problems that clients express to me in their initial nutrition consult, along with their frustration surrounding their inability to combat them thus far. To review, the first step in changing a negative behavior is to determine what is causing it in the first place. Once we understand the “why” behind it, we can then begin the process of changing it. Finally, reversing a learned habit and implementing sustainable change can be a long and challenging process. Working with a knowledgeable nutrition coach or Registered Dietician is invaluable in providing you with accountability, unbiased feedback and continuous support. Having someone in your corner at all times will help you to reach your goals in the most efficient way possible.