One of the most common issues folks come into GMB Eating Skills wanting to work on is snacking after dinner.
There’s nothing wrong with eating after dinner, in and of itself. It’s just a time that many folks find themselves eating because they’re bored, tired, or stressed out. It’s easy to fall into a habit of mindless eating after dinner.
So, this is not about when you choose to eat the most delicious thing ever, and you turn off the TV to savor and enjoy it. We’re all about that.
This is about the food you find yourself eating, then later ask, “Why did I eat that?” This is about the chips that you eat hypnotically while you watch TV. Or the cookies that disappear into your stomach after a stressful day.
Bored eating, stress eating, or tired eating is using food to try and fix a non-food problem. We can work on that.
Dieting Didn’t Work Because it Didn’t Teach You Any Skills
Diets tell you that you just need more willpower or that you just need to try harder. That the problem is you, inherently. That’s simplistic to the point of being stupid.
Diet rules are like if a toddler was teaching you how to play a song on the piano, and they just kept yelling, “Play it right!” There’s no skill learning, there’s no strategy, and it doesn’t look at what specifically you’re having trouble with.
You don’t need more willpower and there’s nothing wrong with you. You just need to figure out why you are after-dinner snacking.
You want to put in a targeted strategy, tailored to what’s going on for you. What you need might be different from what someone else needs.
With eating skills, we look at what the issue or problem is for you, we look at what’s underneath that, and we work on a strategy and skill-set for dealing with that.
Three questions to ask yourself about after dinner snacking:
- Are you bored after dinner?
- Are there emotions that come up at the end of the day?
- Are you eating enough at dinner?
Late night eating is a symptom. The cause might be that you’re bored. The cause might be that emotions come up. The cause might be that you’re actually hungry. Each of those has a distinct strategy and skill-set.
First: Are You Just Bored?
Eating is one way to deal with boredom. It definitely isn’t the only way. If you really look at who you want to be about eating, boredom eating probably isn’t something you’d choose for yourself.
Don’t get me wrong, it totally works! Eating is entertaining.
We just don’t want eating to be a requirement for us to entertain ourselves. We want more options.
So, you have to brainstorm more options. This doesn’t have to be super complicated. You can look at things like:
- Watch better TV
- Pick up an old hobby
- Start a new hobby
Some people have done really well just trading crappy TV for better TV. Maybe you look at the TV shows that Rotten Tomatoes have given the highest ratings to. Maybe you watch American Film Institute’s 100 Best Movies of All Time. Whatever it is, if you can’t watch it without eating, it probably sucks. Find something better.
Picking up a new or old hobby is next-level. It’s always more engaging to do something. It’s fulfilling in a different way. Playing an instrument, crocheting, Rubik’s cube, jigsaw puzzles, playing a videogame, taking a class, or whatever you like, there’s something fulfilling about doing something you enjoy. Bonus points if it takes a little skill.
The potential downside of hobbies is that many have a learning curve. A new hobby might take more effort at first, or an old hobby might take some time to get back in the swing of. It’s worth the effort — in fact the effort is part of what makes it so satisfying.
If you’re crushed and tired at the end of your work day, finding more passive things to do like watching TV or taking a bath can be great. If you have a little bit of juice, you might get even more out of a hobby.
Second: Are You Wicked Bummed Out at the End of the Day?
If difficult emotions come up at the end of the day, that’s a different issue from boredom. Finding better TV would be ok, but that’s basically just a distraction. At some point, we have to learn to notice and name our feelings, and actually practice sitting with them.
Despite what social media makes it look like, uncomfortable emotions are totally normal. No one is “up” all of the time, humans just aren’t wired that way.
It’s normal to feel:
- It’s normal to feel sad when sad things happen
- It’s normal to be frustrated when frustrating things happen
- It’s normal to feel lonely sometimes
- It’s normal to feel angry when your boundaries were violated
- It’s normal to be scared or anxious of uncertainty sometimes
- It’s normal to feel embarrassed when you mess up
You don’t need to “fix” any of those emotions. Those are all normal things to feel.
What we want to get good at is separating the feelings from specific actions. You can feel sad without eating the cookies to distract yourself from it. You can feel angry without using a big bag of chips to numb it out. You can feel anxious without getting seconds of dinner to help ignore it.
The first step is to start noticing your thoughts and naming your feelings.
You might want to start off with journaling about what’s going on. You can write out, “I notice I’m having the thought that ______________.” Then see if you can take a step back, and just notice that thought, like you were reading in a book and a character had it. Then, “With that thought, the emotion I’m feeling is ___________.” Try and take a step back, and see how that feeling makes sense, given the situation you are in.
You could even write out what a good friend or wise mentor might tell you about those thoughts and feelings. You can repeat that process multiple times, just noticing the next thought and the next feeling. Just trying to notice, take a step back, and do some perspective taking.
You could also go through that process in your head, while going for a walk. Go for a walk and ask yourself the same kinds of questions, “What’s the first thought that I notice?” and “Can I notice that thought as a thought, without trying to agree or disagree, judge, or engage with?” Then, “What’s one feeling I can put some words around?”
The goal isn’t to fix or change these thoughts or feelings. The skill is in being able to notice them, name them, and take a step back from them. Just let them be there.
That noticing, naming, and willingness to feel, that gives you the wiggle-room to make new and different choices about eating.
If we can’t be with our thoughts and emotions, we have to avoid them somehow. Eating just happens to be an easy way to avoid them. If we want to stop emotional eating, we have to confront learning how to be with our own, totally normal emotions.
Noticing and naming is the very first step in building the skills for being with emotions and reducing emotional eating, but it doesn’t end there. In GMB Eating Skills we have 12 separate lessons on working with emotions and eating. Noticing and naming is the necessary foundation.
Third: You Getting Enough Food, Bro?
You might be surprised how often the answer is just more food at meals.
Years of dieting have taught most people to eat smaller and smaller meals. Then, because they’re hungry, they end up snacking between meals and after dinner. It’s not that they’re emotional eating or that they’re bored, they’re just hungry.
The thing is — most people eat better quality food and eat more balanced food at meals than at snacks. As people start to eat less at meals and do more snacking, they’re over-all food quality starts to slip.
Worse, humans aren’t very good at self-regulating food intake (eating based on hunger and fullness) at snacks. We’re way better at noticing when full and stopping at meals.
So, we want to take a look at dinner:
- Are you getting enough food?
- Are you eating a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and vegetables?
- Are you eating without screens?
Total food is pretty simple, if you aren’t eating enough, you’re going to be hungry later.
Balanced meals are more filling and satiating than unbalanced meals. If you eat straight carbohydrates at a meal, you’re going to be hungry later. On the flip-side, if you add protein and fat, it’ll be way more satisfying.
The screens thing is a little different — if we eat distracted by screens, it actually changes the way we relate to our hunger and fullness signals. We’ll be more likely to interpret our bodies’ signals as hunger if we don’t have a complete memory of eating the meal.
Lastly, there are a ton of folks who eat a big dinner, but don’t get enough food at breakfast or lunch. Not getting enough food, or balanced enough food, at breakfast and lunch is also a big contributor to after dinner snacking. It’s just carryover from not having gotten enough during the day.
So, if dinner is your biggest meal of the day, by a lot, it probably isn’t that you need to add more to dinner. It could be that you need a more substantial breakfast or lunch.
Which Strategy Are You Going to Try This Week?
Take a look at your after dinner activities, your after dinner emotions, and your meals throughout the day, and figure out which one to go to work on.
Remember, if you’re having trouble with snacking after dinner, it isn’t about adding more willpower to your after dinner time. It’s about finding out what’s going on underneath the after dinner snacking. Handle the underlying issue.
- If you’re bored —> find something engaging to do
- If you’re feelings stress or emotions —> learn to be with stress and emotions
- If you’re hungry —> Add more food or more balanced food to meals
Even though diets have taught you that the answer to everything is to just try harder, we’ve found it’s much more effective to figure out what’s going on for you, then put in a targeted strategy for that.