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Night Cravings: The After-Dinner Horror

The catchy title of this week's column was the heading of an e-mail sent to me by a reader a few weeks ago. Aside from grabbing my attention with her creative caption, I decided to write about her problem because it is a common one for women. Her description of her nightly ordeal also brought back memories for me because I am a long-time survivor of the "after-dinner horror." Here is her dilemma in her own words:

"I am a gym addict and maintain a very healthy diet. However, I am having problems with my late-night cravings, somewhere around 10 p.m., where I have already put my kids to sleep, and I wake up just to eat. I may be full or partially hungry, but regardless of my stomach status, I tend to eat anything, but most of the time the ever-deadly sweets, bread, and cookies kill me at night. It is non-stop tasting or pinching of bread or cookies, which eventually turns out into a bingeing spree. I can't seem to find the food that will pacify all these cravings, and end all the non-stop eating. Please feature something in your article regarding pacifying cravings at night, or at any time of the day, what to eat, what to do if it happens, and how to avoid it."

Out-of-control late-night bingeing, specifically for carbohydrates, sweets and chocolate, is typically a female problem, though I do know a few men who struggle with it. Women are the ones who are mostly affected because they tend to diet severely and use food as an emotional outlet. During my nighttime refrigerator-raiding days, I was dieting while undergoing a confusing time in my life.

How dieting can lead to night bingeing
Dieting (I use the word to mean restrictive dieting) can lead to night bingeing because of feelings of deprivation, an "all-or-nothing" attitude, true physical hunger, and a search for flavor.

I remember reading about an experiment back in the 1950s that involved putting young army recruits on semi-starvation diets (quite similar to what a lot of women do to themselves). The men experienced powerful night cravings and vivid dreams of food.

The "all-or-nothing" attitude is exemplified in this typical scenario: The dieter starts her day feeling in control of herself and her diet. She is determined to lose weight even if it means practically starving herself. She skips breakfast, eats very little for lunch, but becomes ravenous by mid-afternoon and succumbs to cookies that are passed around in the office. She gets mad at herself for falling into temptation but her resolve has already been weakened by the cookie incident so she eats more than she feels she should for dinner. Besides, hunger is gnawing at her because she really hasn't eaten much the whole day. By now she is rationalizing that since she has "broken" her diet she might as well go all the way (this is where the bingeing comes in). As she is stuffing her face with whatever food there is at home, she resolves to start the diet again tomorrow. She swears to herself that she will be "good" this time. But of course, even if she may succeed in being a "good girl" for several days, she falls back into the bingeing pattern because she is fighting a losing battle against the primal urge to eat and the basic need to derive pleasure from eating.

Even women who are not dieting but are eating a "healthy diet" can find themselves in this predicament because they are too hard on themselves. They may eat food that is healthy but is personally detestable. Sure, cottage cheese is good for you but if it reminds you of paste, you will eventually rebel. Constantly eating food that is bland and tasteless can make you have strong cravings that you can't seem to satisfy. What your deprived taste buds are looking for is the flavor that is missing from your daily meals.

It's relatively easy to deny yourself in the early part of the day because there are so many distractions at home, school, or work. But nighttime is a different story because the hunger pangs or desire for flavor have built up to a peak and you have fewer distractions to keep your mind from food.


Matters become even worse if you exercise and diet at the same time. Again, I use the word "diet" to mean skipping meals or eating only crackers for lunch. Your body's need for calories will usually manifest as late-night cravings. Even well-meaning gym addicts can inadvertently trigger powerful cravings if they aren't getting enough calories to fuel their strenuous workouts.

Food as substance abuse
Women are notorious for using bread, cookies, and the like as an emotional escape or as an outlet for stress. Food has been called the good girl's drug. While some women may abuse alcohol, drugs, gambling and sex in an effort to dull their emotional pain, the majority of women turn to sweets. Food is legal, easily available, and socially acceptable.

Women rarely have cravings for meat or savory dishes like a fish and tomato casserole. The cravings are almost always for chocolate, cake, desserts, cookies and bread. There is still no definite answer why these are the most craved foods but one of the theories is that carbohydrates stimulate the production of serotonin, a feel-good brain chemical that partly controls mood.

If you turn to food for comfort, it doesn't automatically mean that you have a deep emotional issue like a sexually-abused childhood. It can simply mean that you are stressed at work or school, you are undergoing a minor difficulty in your marriage, or a willful child is stretching your patience to the limit.

Late-night snacking as a habit
Some people have a hard time stopping themselves from snacking at night because they developed the habit as a child. The habit of snacking while watching TV is an especially hard one to break because you have been conditioned to only enjoy TV if your hand is dipping into a bag of M & M's at the same time. A friend of mine told me that late-night snacking is a special Waterloo for her because her mother's bedroom was a veritable sari-sari store with a refrigerator full of chocolates and ice cream and a closet amply stocked with all kinds of snacks.

How to control night cravings
The battle against late-night cravings will not be won overnight but if you start applying the tips listed below and finding out which work for you, the late-night cravings monster can be tamed.

* Do not diet by skipping meals or starving yourself especially if you are exercising. It is almost impossible to control night cravings if you lack calories. You can still lose weight by eating three meals plus two snacks (one in mid-morning and the other mid-afternoon) if you concentrate on large portions of vegetables and moderate portions of lean protein, whole grains, beans, fruits and nuts. Eat very small portions of deep-fried food and refined carbohydrates like white bread, sweets and desserts. Be careful also of high-sugar drinks like juice, iced tea or lemonade mixes.

* If possible, clear the battlefield (your home) of all temptations. If your household will revolt at the idea, at least get rid of your personal favorites. Hide the rest at the back of the refrigerator or at the back of your kitchen cupboards inside plastic or dark glass containers so you can't see them.

* An opposite strategy is to purposely plan to have a "forbidden" treat at night. By giving yourself permission to enjoy your favorite indulgence, you reduce the likelihood of losing control and eating everything else in sight. To make this strategy work, sit down somewhere quiet and slowly savor each bite. If you eat it while watching TV or while standing up at the kitchen counter, it won't satisfy you.

* If you have night cravings in spite of eating well, consider the possibility that you are emotionally hungry. Be honest and evaluate whether or not you are really happy with the way your life is going. Psychological therapy might be just what you need. Are you undergoing a stressful period? What can you do to lessen the stress?

* Keep your hands busy at night to avoid snacking. I took up embroidery and cross-stitch as part of my strategy to beat bulimia and night cravings. Some people do crochet or knitting. Not only can't you sew and eat at the same time, you are also distracted from thoughts of food. Plus, working with your hands is quite soothing and therapeutic so it can also be a form of stress release. My initial project took me a few years to finish (I made the novice mistake of choosing a large design and using cross-stitch thread when I should have used crewel yarn). It now hangs in one of my parent's guest rooms. For me, it will always symbolize how I conquered my eating disorder. If sewing isn't your thing, look for other crafts. Try origami, painting, clay sculpting or artificial flower-making. Teenagers can make braided or beaded bracelets or anklets.

* If you are very "oral" and need to keep your mouth busy, try sipping warm non-caffeinated herbal tea like chamomile, peppermint or ginger. Many people find this helps them calm down and reflect on how their day went without feeling anxious.

* According to Stephen Gullo, author of "Thin Tastes Better," cravings are like waves that rise up quickly and fall down just as fast. He says that sometimes the most powerful way to beat a food craving is to take the focus off the craving for 15 minutes. Use the time to fix your closet, do your nails, finish your photo album, or organize your hand bag. Gullo says not only will you finish long-forgotten projects, you will usually forget about your craving.

* Linda Crawford, an eating behavior specialist, says to disarm your cravings with the Five D's: Delay at least 10 to 15 minutes before you eat so that your action is conscious, not impulsive. Distance yourself from the food. Distract yourself by engaging in an activity that requires concentration and is not compatible with eating. If you still crave the food, determine how important it really is for you to eat the craved food and how much you really want it. Decide what amount is reasonable and appropriate, eat it slowly, and enjoy without guilt.

For more information, go to www.tinajuanfitness.info and search for "Are you an emotional overeater," "Why people have food cravings," and "How to handle food cravings."

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