Do you have trouble sleeping and then find yourself heading to the fridge, even if you're not hungry?
Do you feel like you need to eat something every time in order to be able to fall asleep again?
Do you feel ashamed of eating at night and do it in secret?
Did you know that about 1.5% of the general population engage in night eating that they feel is out-of-control?
If you suffer from night eating, a form of binge eating disorder, you are definitely not alone. Eating at night when you should be sleeping can feel frustrating and shameful, keeping those who do it from asking for help and continue to suffer in silence.
Eatingrecoverycenter.com reports "Night (nocturnal) eating behaviors are common. Many people binge eat, on occasion, at night. In order to meet the full diagnosis for night eating syndrome, one must have at least 3 of the following 5 criteria.
"Morning anorexia" - skipping breakfast or not eating until 12:00 or later on four or more mornings per week
"Evening hyperphagia" - eating more than 25 percent of one's total daily calories (possibly in the form of continuous "grazing") between dinner and bedtime
Having difficulty falling or staying asleep
Experiencing mood or anxiety symptoms that get worse at night - leaving one feeling more agitated, irritable, or depressed in the evening
Presence of a belief that one must eat to go to sleep initially or to return to sleep"
Most people who emotionally eat feel as if it comes out of nowhere and is due to a lack of willpower or laziness. When you binge in the dark, you feel ashamed. This causes stress which leads to more binge eating. A seemingly endless cycle.
The good news is that there are some very logical causes of night eating, and none of them are about laziness or your worth as a person.
There are also many ways you can conquer night eating - it's not a mystery - you just need the right tools and information!
First let's get to the three surprising reasons why you could be night eating.
You're not eating enough during the day
You wouldn't believe how many people's jaws drop to the floor when we tell them they are actually not eating ENOUGH and need to eat MORE in order to stop their night binges. But if you think about it, it makes total sense. Our bodies are fueled by natural hunger signals that occur about every four hours during the day. If you ignore those cues, your body will scream at night to make up for the missed meals. If you are stressed out in addition to hungry, you are definitely going to binge. We can't overcome our natural hunger, and we shouldn't!
You have undiagnosed sleep issues.
We always work with our clients' physicians to rule out possible physical causes for eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and night eating syndrome). One of the physical causes that is more common than you think is undiagnosed sleep apnea, a condition that basically causes you to stop breathing up to hundreds of times per night. Not only is this condition, left untreated, extremely dangerous, but it can cause you to binge eat at night.
You're consuming too much alcohol or marijuana.
If you are drinking at night to calm down from the day, believing it will help you sleep, you may be surprised to know the opposite is true. Consuming too much alcohol or marijuana at night can actually cause wakefulness. Additionally, they are both disinhibitors which can cause you to head to the fridge and eat more than your hunger is telling you.
And now for one obvious cause of night eating that you probably already knew:
You're too stressed
Emotional eating is a coping mechanism and an attempt to self-soothe, and it does NOT stem from a lack of willpower or laziness. If you don't do enough during the day to lower your stress levels, many people will soothe themselves at night by drinking too much alcohol, smoking pot and/or night eating.
Here are some tips to overcome night eating:
Work with a nutritionist to see if you're eating enough during the day or have distorted beliefs about food and sleep, such as you need to eat in order to get back to sleep. Make sure the nutritionist is an Intuitive Eating Specialist and has lots of experience working with eating disorders.
Be more conscious about planning your meals. It's amazing how much people plan for the care of others but neglect themselves. It is essential that you don't skip meals and eat meals that keep you adequately fueled during the day. Often our clients see a dramatic decrease in night eating just by having several sessions with our dietitian and planning daytime meals appropriately.
Work with a therapist to identify stressors and learn what to do to stop them. Although essential, working with the dietitian is sometimes not enough if you can't pinpoint the exact causes of your stress. A therapist who is an eating disorder specialist can help you pinpoint those causes quicky (even if you can't), and help you come up with a plan to work on eliminating them.
Learn how to predict triggers for night eating and prepare for them in advance. A good therapist can help you learn to predict triggers for night eating and come up with a plan to effectively deal with them beforehand. For example, if a stressful visit from a family member is coming up, the therapist can help you work on setting firm boundaries with less guilt.
Plan night time snacks instead of feeling guilty about them. Instead of shaming yourself about wanting to eat at night, work on getting rid of the shame and honoring your hunger. By avoiding the foods you crave at night, you actually greatly increase the chances of overeating.
Develop a bedtime routine. You can't go one hundred miles per hour all day and then fall into bed at night peaceful and relaxed. It's important to have rituals at night that help you wind down and get sleepy. These can include turning off screens at least an hour before bedtime, using meditation apps, and having a warm bath, for example.
Get evaluated for sleep disorders such as sleep apnea. If you take just one tip from this article let it be this one. If you snore and are chronically tired GET A SLEEP STUDY to rule out sleep apnea and other sleep disorders. It could stop your night eating and save your life!
Use relaxation techniques and self-care throughout the day so you don't binge at night. Just as you need a relaxing bedtime ritual, it's important to plan regular self-care during the day to lower stress levels. This can include planning regular lunches with friends, getting a weekly massage, or taking time to take your dogs to the park.
Honestly evaluate your consumption of alcohol, cannabis, or other substances. Overuse of drugs and alcohol can cause night eating and have other dangerous consequences when used regularly to cope with stress. Don't be afraid to ask for help to wean off.
Don't skip breakfast even if you're not very hungry. It's important to eat regularly throughout the day so you don't set yourself up to binge at night. A nutritionist can help you with breakfast ideas that are more palatable if you don't feel your hunger first thing in the morning.
Don't deprive yourself of the foods you love, including junk food. Don't take foods you consider "bad" out of the house. On the contrary, if you allow yourself to have them and know you can have them whenever you want, you will be much less likely to binge on them.
Consider therapy combined with medication in order to help alleviate underlying anxiety or depression. Medication prescribed by a doctor or psychiatrist can be a valuable tool in combination with counseling to help stress levels go down. Don't be afraid to consider it.
If you need more help with night eating, remember that we have a highly experienced eating disorder treatment team at The Body Image Counseling Center who can help you get better, usually without having to take time off from school or work. Just call us at 904-737-3232 or fill out our contact form to sign up for a FREE 15 minute consult.