Three months ago, I started a sustainable weight loss journey. I’m 12 pounds down so far and feeling better than I have in years. But the journey got off to kind of a rocky start, and there were some hard lessons I had to learn in order to finally start reaching my goals.
I was doing everything “technically” right. I implemented a solid workout routine, was drinking my water, and was eating a balanced and nutrient-dense diet throughout the day. I took my vitamins. Got my steps in. Limited my carbs, upped my protein, and watched my calorie intake during the day.
But I still wasn’t losing weight.
In fact, I was slowly gaining. One night, it hit me that I had a bad habit that was sabotaging all the hard work I was doing during the day. The habit: my pernicious nighttime snacking. I love the word pernicious; we don’t use it enough. When something is pernicious, it means that it has a harmful or dangerous effect that is subtle, gradual, and not easily apparent at first. That’s what my nighttime snacking was. It was something I did every night that seemed pretty innocent — especially after a day of discipline and sacrifice toward my weight loss goals. What could possibly be wrong with a little nighttime snack? The problem was that it was never just a little nighttime snack. It became an evening of binge eating and bad decisions that usually didn’t end until I’d consumed a couple thousand extra (and unaccounted for) calories.
After a long day of work and parenting, and a really vigorous workout on my Peloton, all I wanted was a glass of wine (more on that in a moment) and a snack that paired nicely with it. Usually, that was something like cheese and pepperoni or popcorn.
When the savory treats were gone, I needed something sweet to balance it out. So, I’d grab a mini Reeses Peanut Butter Cup from the pantry. Of course, you can’t eat just one of those, so over the course of an hour to two, while reading my book and sipping wine, I’d probably make another 5-6 trips to the pantry for more sweet treats. Then, after coating my teeth with all that sugar, it seemed natural that I needed something salty again to get that saccharine sweetness out of my mouth. But can you really enjoy a savory treat without wine? Of course not. So, off I went to fill my empty glass back up.
The cycle would go on and on like that until finally, mercifully, I would crash. Usually with a pile of dirty dishes and discarded bags of chips by my bed.
This habit was completely destroying all the hard work and sacrifice I was doing throughout the day. It had to stop.
I made a few rules for myself:
- No eating after 8:00pm
- Only one glass of wine before bed
- No snacks with the wine, no matter what
The rules seemed simple and easy to follow. I figured it would be a no-brainer. But breaking the habit was a much harder process than I thought it would be.
Those first few nights, I tossed and turned in bed, unable to sleep. My brain and my body screamed for the cozy blanket of comfort food I had wrapped it in every night. It felt physically impossible to drink a good glass of red wine without a snack to go with it. The soothing affects of the alcohol lulled my brain into a happy, care-free place where my fitness goals didn’t seem to matter too much. You’ve sacrificed all day it sang to me. You did good. You’re hungry. Have a snack.
I’d lay there for hours, miserable. Sometimes, I’d refuse to get up to use the bathroom even when my bladder was painfully full, all because I knew that if I got out of bed I wouldn’t have the self-control to not raid the pantry. Nighttime became a physical and psychological battle of discipline, and it completely exhausted me.
I realized I needed to make some tweaks to my rules; they just weren’t working for me as they were.
First, I decided to remove alcohol from my weeknight routine entirely. I knew I didn’t have a physical addiction to it, but it was becoming clear that I had a psychological dependence on it. I needed the warm brain blanket that wine so effortlessly provided to slow my thoughts and fall asleep. And it was time to break that cycle. I made a rule that wine would be only for weekends. On Friday evenings, I allowed myself to buy one 750 mL bottle of wine to last the weekend. When it’s gone, it’s gone. After that, no more wine until the next weekend.
Second, I started learning about water recipes from TikTok. I realized that a lot of my snacking and drinking at night was really just about wanting something to do with my mouth (don’t make it weird; but there is such thing an oral fixation — look it up). Drinking plain water wasn’t going to cut it, so I began learning how to make interesting, flavorful, and zero-calorie waters for bedtime.
Third, just for those first painful weeks, I started taking a melatonin before bed. It seemed like I needed a little help getting myself to sleep so that I wouldn’t just lay there dreaming of food I couldn’t have.
I kept this new system strictly for about 2.5 months, friends. I had to hold these rules religiously during that time. If I broke them, even once, I feared I’d tumble back into my old habits.
Now, three full months later, I’m finally free.
I don’t have to be as rigid or strict with those rules now. They served their purpose — they kept me disciplined and focused on my goals while I broke the bad habits. Now that my brain has finally learned that I don’t need alcohol and loads of sweet and savory snacks before bed, I don’t feel that incessant urge to go to the pantry and load up. I no longer need the melatonin; my body has learned how to fall asleep on its own.
Now, three months later, I can safely have a little bedtime snack, or a small glass of wine if I want, and go to sleep easily. No more brain-attacks in the middle of the night, telling me I won’t survive if I don’t grab some Doritos (and wouldn’t a Coke taste so good with that?). I’ve also found that I don’t even crave wine as much anymore.
Practicing sustainable fitness has meant learning that there is a time and place for restrictive measures. It has also meant learning that it’s okay to release those restrictive measures once they’ve served their purpose.
My rules put a much needed end to a self-limiting cycle that was stopping me from reaching my goals. Now, I can thank them and release them.
Sustainable fitness and healthy weight loss has meant, most of all, being adaptive. I’ve learned that flavored water is a suitable substitute for the cravings I get at night. What an incredible discovery! I’ve also learned how to make low-calorie, protein-rich, and absolutely delicious sweet and savory snacks that I can eat when the midnight cravings hit without sabotaging my goals. These days, if my body tells me that I need something else to eat before bed, I get it! I can trust my brain and my body now, knowing that I’m not being led around by a craving, an obsession, an or addiction, rather than my body’s very real need for nutrients. My brain knows the difference now.
I’m very proud of the hard work I did. I’m proud because it is a lifestyle change. I’ve radically changed how my brain and body respond to bedtime cravings, and this new normal is actually something I can sustain! I don’t have to fear falling off the wagon and going out of control, because, to be honest, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. I don’t feel restricted, don’t feel like I’m sacrificing.
And that, my friends, for me at least, is the only way to be successful.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.