Things That Go Bump

Notes from the ongoing struggle with nighttime eating.

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I've tried hard to shape up my diet, honest I have. And I've done pretty well—from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. In fact, by the light of day, I'm a model citizen. I eat organic beans and brown rice; I cook my own soups and stews; I stick to fruits and vegetables and whole grains. I try never to be seen eating anything I wouldn't want Truman to eat. After all, he's picking up his eating habits from me, and I know that this is a huge responsibility. I take it seriously.

After he goes to bed, though, all bets are off. As soon as I'm out of his view, I go crazy--I turn into a carb-mad werewolf. I start ransacking the cupboards for whatever is most handy--chips of any kind, sugary cereals, cookie crumbs, candy, Pop Tarts, whatever. It does no good to simply ban these items from my house, which I do at least twice a week. In my frenzy, I will howl and howl and howl until my husband is forced to drive down to the grocery store to fetch me a package of Mint Milanos or a Twix bar or butter-toffee popcorn or whatever it is I'm demanding tonight. He just wants me to be happy (and shut up). It's a crazy cycle, but I still can't control myself. I really can't.

My nutrition adviser, Eileen Behan, RD, had prepared me for this: Diet habits are the hardest thing to change, she said, particularly when you're stressed out, scattered, and exhausted—and with a very active, nap-free toddler underfoot, I can check all three (I can, in fact, star them, underline them, and drive the point home with multiple exclamation points).

Still, Eileen encouraged me to slow things down enough to pay attention—really notice—exactly what it was I was eating for. What I was trying to accomplish? An interesting question, since it's almost NEVER the case that I'm actually hungry. What I'm always after is something else, some sort of consolation for all the energy sent out during the day every day—some payback for the emotional toll of motherhood. Upon reflection, I realized that I was dipping my hands into bag after bag—of chips, cookies, candies, nuts—in search of a bite that would metaphorically rock and pat and comfort overtired mommy.

You can't get that kind of love from food, of course; technically speaking, you can't get anything but fuel for your body. What you CAN get is a few extra pounds you don't need to carry around. When my scale started creeping back upward I reached out to Eileen for help. She went right back to the advice we'd been through before—turns out it never changes, no matter how hard you wish that it would.

Here's a recap of her sage advice:

  • "If you want to lose more, you'll have to practice portion control," Eileen says. "You can eat whatever you want, but you need to stop at 150 calories of it. If you want Mint Milanos, go ahead and have them—but you can only have three of them."
  • To help make smaller snacks more satisfying, Eileen suggests arranging them on a plate, and enjoying them with a cup of herbal tea—creating a Mint Milano ritual to help compensate for lack of will power, the first thing to go when mommy gets tired.
  • Better yet, she said, choose snacks that wouldn't require such heroic self-control: whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk, low-fat yogurt with a high calcium content (she likes Stonyfield Farms), fruits and vegetables.
  • Keep a food diary to create accountability. This works—believe me, those Krispy Kremes and Tim's Cascade Salt and Vinegar chips don't look nearly so appealing in the light of early dawn, and it does take some of the luster off them anticipating the regret you'll feel when you look back on your very unwise—if delicious—choice.
  • Eat like your kid is ALWAYS watching. "If you're cheating on him, he's going to figure it out sooner or later," she says. "It's not fair to him, and it doesn't help you establish a very honest relationship with your child.

Ouch. Lying to Truman is not my intention—just look at his little open face. How could I? But then, I'd wager that no mother would aim to create a dishonest relationship with her child. I'll try harder, if not for myself, for him.

And as I struggle to break the patterns that are by now so firmly entrenched, I've created my own little intervention: Every time I start to eat something I'm not hungry for, I go up the stairs to check on my cherubic sleeping baby. Sometimes, I find the experience leaves me feeling amply fed.

Mphfph, grmphgh, mphr, what? No, that wasn't a Chips Ahoy. That was Hillari Dowdle writing away in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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