In my experience, insatiable nighttime cravings and uncomfortable evening binges have a root cause. They don’t just happen in a void. The two most common antecedents are unmet energy needs and unmet emotional needs. Starting to explore or understand our physical and emotional needs can open up a deeper and more compassionate understanding of those hard-to-rid late-night cravings.
Unmet Energy Needs
Food is fuel—energy and sustenance. In just a single day, our heart beats 103,689 times and our lungs breath 23,040 times. It’s evident that our body needs a substantial amount of fuel to survive! Starting with breakfast, it’s crucial to nourish the body with three meals a day and snacks as needed to provide the calories and nutrients it needs.
Busy schedules, a new diet, social demands, or forgetfulness may disrupt consistent and adequate eating. In the moment, a skipped snack or a measly meal may not seem to matter, but it does. Our biology is to strive for homeostasis, or equality, especially when it comes to energy in and energy out. Our body works relentlessly to avoid an energy deficit. That is something we cannot micromanage. And if we do, our biology rebels! That’s why we may experience intense cravings, mental fogginess, heightened thoughts about food, dizziness, stomach pain, and other hard-to-ignore signs of hunger. That’s not your body sabotaging your diet, that’s your body fighting and rooting for your wellbeing.
Unmet Emotional Needs
Food is fuel…but it’s so much more. Food is a part of celebrations, mournings, religious symbolism, romance, and connection. On top of that, food is designed for pleasure and enjoyment. No wonder we have an emotional attachment to it!
Think of energy and emotional needs as tanks to fill. Food can always completely fill our energy needs. Food can meet some emotional needs, but certainly not all of them. Sometimes we overeat in an attempt to fill both our energy and emotional tanks, but that often leaves us with an over-full energy tank and a half-empty emotional tank. Emotional eating isn’t bad, and it can be a part of a healthy lifestyle when we tie in mindfulness.
The next time you have a craving at night, ask yourself…
- Did I eat three meals today with snacks as I needed?
- What is my current hunger level, on a scale of 1–10?
- Do I feel happy, angry, sad, lonely, tired, or excited?
- Will eating this help me feel better in the short term? Long term?
These questions prompt curiosity, providing room to explore intention and purpose behind your evening snack. Keep in mind, numerous factors affect hunger, cravings, and biology such as food accessibility, genetics, medication, and more.
Another area to think about is your sleep schedule. Often, “bedtime” is for children, but many adults can benefit from a more structured bedtime routine so sleeping for 7 to 9 hours a night is more feasible. Not only is more sleep helpful and healthful, but this added structure may also help you wake up in time for breakfast and help prevent mindless late-night grazing.
Our bodies are created to enjoy food, use food, and crave food—that’s all normal. Increasing mindfulness by asking questions about our energy and emotional needs can help us to discover the root cause of nighttime cravings. Ultimately, providing peace and empowerment to intentionally and intuitively fuel our bodies.
Caroline Shermer, MS, RDN, LDN is a nutrition therapist and Registered Dietitian at Memphis Nutrition Group. Memphis Nutrition Group believes in a non-diet approach that promotes overall health and optimal performance without compromising the enjoyment of food. For more information call Memphis Nutrition Group at 901.343.6146 or visit MemphisNutritionGroup.com.