Night Time Eating & Snacking

How To Stop Night-Time Eating & Snacking After Bariatric Surgery

May 22, 2019

Night-time eating often has very little to do with physical hunger. Rather, the impulse to eat late at night more likely stems from either one of two things:

  1. an unhealthy way of dealing with strong emotions or
  2. an overly restricted daytime food intake.

Emotional Eating: Night-Time Eating & Snacking

Experts in health psychology agree that the majority of bariatric patients turn to food as a maladaptive coping response to negative emotions.

In other words, for one reason or another, people struggling with their weight often have not found healthy ways to deal with stress, sadness, guilt, loneliness, anger, fear, or boredom. In fact, your emotions can become so tied to your eating habits that you automatically reach for a treat whenever you’re angry or stressed without thinking about what you’re doing.

Food also serves as a distraction. If you’re worried about an upcoming event or stewing over a conflict, for example, you may focus on eating comfort food instead of dealing with the painful situation. Whatever emotions drive you to overeat, the end result is often the same.

Because emotions are by definition transitory states, the short-term suppression of the negative feeling invariable returns, and then you are left to bear the additional burden of guilt of jeopardizing weight loss goals. This can also lead to an unhealthy cycle – your emotions trigger you to overeat, you beat yourself up for getting off your weight-loss track, you feel bad, and you overeat again.

Principles to Remember to End Emotional Eating

Practice “riding out” negative emotions

Negative emotions come and go. They ebb and flow like the tide of the ocean.

Although it may sound counterintuitive to many people, the biggest mistake people make is trying to either avoid negative emotions or fight them. Negative emotions actually become stronger when people do this. Rather, the key to gaining some control over them is choosing to invite them in and allowing yourself to feel.

Tell yourself that it is okay to feel stress, sadness, guilt, loneliness, anger, fear, or boredom. Approach your feelings with curiosity. This will allow for greater insight into your emotional world. Knowing that a bad feeling will subside is important because learning to deal with it without eating involves developing the ability to deal with it.

For example, this concept of overcoming negative emotions is utilized when working with patients with specific phobias. Let’s say we have a patient with a phobia of snakes. The treatment, of course, is not to advise the patient to simply avoid snakes or fight the emotion when around them. Rather, sessions are organized during which patients are gradually exposed to snakes over a period of time (in vivo exposure). The idea is that if you experience fear without doing anything to escape it, the fear will go away.

Keep a food diary

Perhaps the most empowering practice to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the mood-food dynamic is to keep a food diary.

As you begin to identify emotional eating and attempt to overcome it, start logging your mood each time you eat. This will allow you to identify episodes of emotional eating. You will begin to see a pattern highlighting the times when you eat in bad moods and which foods are chosen.

Strip your junk food of its power

Each time you use comfort food as a way to cope with negative emotions, you empower the food itself.

Food becomes a coping strategy, making your desire for it intensify. You begin to believe that you need food to get through bad feelings. Incidentally, studies have shown that eating high-fat and/or high-sugar foods can affect activity in the areas of the brain that manage stress, thereby reinforcing your reliance on eating in response to stress (Dallman et al, 2011).

Develop adaptive coping strategies

It will be important to find ways to cope with negative emotions that do not exacerbate the problem. In other words, what are some coping strategies that will help you deal with these feelings, avoid emotional eating, and not jeopardize your weight loss goals?

Some examples may include aerobic exercise, weight resistance training, yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, joining a support group, talking with a trusted friend, getting involved with community programs of interest to you, etc.

Set yourself up for success

Don’t keep hard-to-resist comfort foods in your home.

Instead, fill your refrigerator and pantry with healthy snacks, such as fresh fruit, vegetables, sources of lean protein, and high fiber/low-fat products.

Are you really hungry?

Listen to your body and learn what your physical symptoms of hunger are.

Although they will vary from person to person, recognize which of the following apply to you:

  1. Feelings of emptiness in the stomach
  2. Gurgling, rumbling, or growling in the stomach
  3. Dizziness, faintness, or light-headedness
  4. Headache
  5. Irritability
  6. Lack of concentration
  7. Nausea

Make it a practice to assess your body’s signals. Are these signals reflective of true physical symptoms of hunger?

Inadequate Daytime Food Intake

This piece of the puzzle is much more easily corrected by making a few minor adjustments. Begin by becoming more structured and strategic in planning your meals.

For example, create an easy-to-follow meal plan that accounts for an appropriate amount of protein throughout the day in a combination of healthy snacks in-between meals. By creating a fixed, structured guideline of pre-planned meals, the bariatric patient will feel much more in control of his or her diet. After all, success in achieving postoperative weight loss is largely a function of feeling more “in charge” of your own progress and establishing yourself as the agent of change. From a psychological perspective, this helps neutralize one’s vulnerability to impulse.

Pinterest Night Time Eating

Collins Hodges


Dr. Collins Hodges is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in bariatric behavioral health. He attended Southern Methodist University on a full academic scholarship. Dr. Hodges earned both a masters degree and doctorate in clinical psychology. Dr. Hodges has received additional intensive training in bariatric behavioral health. He is a certified trainer for the ‘Am I Hungry Mindful Eating Program for Bariatric Surgery Patients.’ He is a bariatric psychologist at New You Bariatric Center, My New Beginning at City Hospital at White Rock, and the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute (BMI) at Medical City Plano.