Those who experience night eating episodes, or “midnight snacks,” may just think of the phenomena as a nasty habit that they have to break or as a product of stress. But night eating can be more than just a bad habit.
Many Americans, men and women, experience night eating without realizing they may actually have an eating disorder. While not as well-known as other eating disorders like binge eating or bulimia, Night Eating Syndrome (NES) can disrupt our health and wellness.
Being aware of whether or not one is suffering from an actual eating disorder rather than just a bad habit can greatly influence one’s approach to fixing it and chances of successful recovery.
Night Eating Syndrome (NES)
NES has been around for many years, but has received more attention recently with obesity and obesity-related problems on the rise. According to Allison Et al. (2011), people with NES display a unique set of characteristics.
These characteristics include a lack of hunger during early hours of the day (morning anorexia), eating more than 25% of daily intake after dinner (evening hyperphagia) and/or waking up at night to eat (nocturnal ingestion).
This may also include a belief or feeling that it is necessary to eat to begin and go back to sleep. A person with NES can remember night eating and is aware it happened, unlike Sleep Related Eating Disorder (SRED) in which they are unaware and cannot remember it.
While the exact cause of NES is not yet known, it is thought to relate to a disruption in the sleep cycle, as well as hormones involved in regulating sleep, hunger, and mood (Miller, 2013). NES may also be associated with depression, anxiety, stress, and even addiction.
It is important to realize that the exact cause is not always clear but that recognizing the problem there and seeking help is still better than not doing so.
There are many proposed treatments for NES still being explored, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants (Miller, 2013). Treatments will likely depend on what the prescribing physician finds to be most adequate given one’s history.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle including a good diet, exercise, and getting enough sleep will likely help the person succeed and help regulate circadian rhythms and eating episodes.
Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle
Exercise brings all over positive effects to our minds and bodies. Not only does it promote healthy aging, strong bones, and good circulation, but exercise helps improve mood by managing stress, anxiety, depression and improving sleep.
Exercising early in the morning rather than late at night may also help a person with NES given that it is a part of sleep hygiene.
Binge eating and NES are associated with large intakes of comfort foods. Comfort foods do not always offer lasting satiety, the feeling of fullness.
Eating foods that are nutrient-dense rather than energy-dense and that have lots of fiber may help a person feel fuller for longer and lessen the need to eat at night.
Sticking to a healthy eating schedule may also help a person regulate their hunger episodes and break the night-eating cycle. It is important to consult a nutritional expert or a dietitian, to help with this aspect of NES, as they are best equipped to help.
Given that NES is associated with a disrupted sleep cycle, getting back on a healthy sleep schedule might help regulate circadian rhythms and the tendency to eat at night.
Practice good sleep habits like limiting light from electronic devices at night, not drinking alcoholic or caffeinated beverages in the evening, and exercising in the morning hours.
Do what you find necessary to ensure your comfort while you sleep with sleep ergonomics: find pillows that help you rest, a comfy mattress, or the right room temperature.
Services at CORE
At Santa Cruz CORE, we offer services that can help get you back on track when dealing with diet and stress related problems. We have nutritionists that can help give food and diet advice, and personal trainers that can help with exercise habits.
Our vascular performance (VASPER) system can help improve sleep and regulate hormone levels. We also offer massage and acupuncture which can help you deal with stress and anxiety and improve your sleep.
- Allison, K. C., & Tarves, E. P. (2011). Treatment of night eating syndrome. The Psychiatric clinics of North America, 34(4), 785–796. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psc.2011.08.002
- Nolan, L. J., & Geliebter, A. (2019). Factor structure of the Night Eating Diagnostic Questionnaire (NEDQ) and an evaluation of the diagnostic criteria of the night eating syndrome. Journal of eating disorders, 7, 39. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-019-0268-9
- Michael Craig Miller, M. (2013, September 13). Nighttime overeating can throw weight and health out of sync. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nighttime-overeating-can-throw-weight-and-health-out-of-sync-201309136658