It’s one of my coaching clients, and she has a little secret. It’s not much of a secret as far as I’m concerned, because so many people do the same thing. What makes a secret a secret, though, is the shame. That’s why they call it a ‘secret’ and not a ‘surprise.’
Guess what I’m doing?? When you find out you’re going to be SO EXCITED!!!
Nope, not that kind. The guilty kind.
She wakes up in the middle of the night, gets out of bed, and binge-eats.
Okay, not everyone does that, but I can tell you why it’s so similar to what so many people do.
She, like many people, often skips breakfast. If she does eat anything in the morning, it’s usually a coffee and pastry or, like, an energy bar.
A snack instead of a proper lunch.
Nothing until dinnertime, 6-8 hours after the last time she ate.
Any of this starting to sound familiar?
It’s incredibly common for people to eat some kind of snack, usually dessert, very late at night. Usually right before bed. I personally cannot do this because it triggers my night terrors. No amount or flavor of ice cream is worth screaming in my sleep.
Other people, though, are understandably going to be hungry again 3-4 hours after dinner, and they’re going to eat. Most people also crave sweets after a meal.
So yeah. Night eating. *shrug* Most people do it. Why be ashamed about it?
I get the shame thing, I really do. When I have night terrors, I always start crying as soon as I snap awake. I can’t imagine anything more embarrassing than running around the house in my underwear, screaming, because I had some stupid dream about a spider on the ceiling. It makes me feel like a child, like I can’t control myself. Hate it.
It’s the body telling the brain what to do.
Exactly like the craving to eat late at night.
My client wants to stop, she says. She feels ashamed and guilty and she’s not enjoying the effects on her health. (Diabetes, sleep apnea, a 100-pound weight gain).
I suggest that she might change her mealtimes and come up with things to do that will keep her in bed when she wakes up at night. Like her favorite playlist, a bottle of aromatherapy fragrance, maybe a podcast episode. I wake up in the middle of the night a lot, too, and it’s pretty boring to just lie there for 90 minutes.
My plan, of course, doesn’t work.
The problem with persistent problems is that they’re always the result of a complex web of issues. Changing only one thing usually isn’t enough to disrupt the pattern. It can be very tricky to figure out what is the root cause.
There’s another problem with persistent problems. That is that we’re in love with them.
There’s always some part of the web of issues that is our very most favorite, adorable thing.
It’s usually part of our very identity, or the one thing we’d want to hold onto if we ever had to give up everything else. Our heart’s desire and our true delight.
The thing about night eating is that it’s done ALONE. It’s a favored refuge of people who feel that they serve others all day. Workaholics and people pleasers. There is nothing that feels as good as TOTAL PRIVACY while indulging in something for yourself alone.
Hey, I agree with that, and I do it too! Showering, writing in my journal, birdwatching... The difference between me and my troubled clients is that I have no shame in indulging myself. I do plenty for other people, but I don’t owe anyone anything, and I have no problem setting boundaries and making sure I have time to myself. Otherwise, I could never deal with the emotional demands that I do.
I also don’t have body image issues, for my own complicated reasons, and I eat whatever I want. If I want cake for breakfast then I’ll eat it, and I’d actually enjoy it much more if I felt like someone was glaring at me and judging me. Ha, this is for you, *big bite*.
The simplest way for my client to deal with her night eating really would be to change her eating schedule. Start with a big hot breakfast. Take an hour off every day and eat a proper sit-down lunch, no errands, no “catching up” on work. Have a satisfying afternoon snack sometime between 3-5, or at least eat something during the commute home. Eat a good dinner.
The goal here is to eat 70-75% of your energy requirements for the day BEFORE DINNER, so that the nice dinner is a chance to put a cap on the day.
As opposed to being incredibly hungry almost all day long, rushing around, “no time” to take real breaks, and feeling starved after twelve busy waking hours.
But doing that would interfere with [everyone’s] image of the diligent, hardworking and ultra-responsible professional busy person.
How do I know how valuable I am unless I feel like I’m sacrificing for my work (my staff, my clients, my customers) all day every day?
Being hungry all day, as a pattern, is a form of self-punishment. It’s a job for a trained therapist to figure out why someone would feel that way, would want to do that. We’d never treat others as badly as we treat ourselves, and there’s something deep under that, but I sure don’t know what it is.
There are other ways for my client to set herself up to quit night eating. She could sign up for a meal delivery plan and eat only what gets delivered.
She could ask her assistant to make sure she eats breakfast, lunch, and a snack, and even have her order it for her each day. It could be scheduled as part of their check-in meetings.
She could put locks on her fridge, freezer, and cupboards, and give her husband the key. More positively, they could quit stocking food in their home, and they could dine out together at a salad buffet or whatever.
She could tell her doctor about it and ask for help. A change in medication, maybe? A doctor would see this as a straightforward health issue, not a shameful secret.
As a practical matter, eating at night is a way of annoying yourself. Crumbs in the bed: uncomfortable! Not sleeping the whole night through: exhausting! Being hungry all day long at work, every week of the year: predictable, boring, and unproductive! Exploding at other people when you’re hangry: mean, rude, and unfair to them!
There are no “wins” here except for the pure hedonism of eating alone, late at night.
As an emotional matter, what’s the deal with night eating? If you want to indulge, just do it in public and, in the unlikely event that anyone hassles you, wink at them and take a nice big grinning bite. The real issue here is probably working out why you care what other people think, rather than what you yourself think.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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