Why Do I Eat So Much at Night?
By Julie Kabat Friedman, PhD
Many patients complain about difficulty controlling their eating behaviors at night. They describe feeling small urges to eat during the day and then constant urges to eat between dinner and bedtime.
We spoke to our resident expert Dr. Julie Friedman to learn more about night eating and binge eating. Here’s what she shared with us:
The difference between night eating and binge eating
Wondering about the difference between “night eating syndrome” and “binge eating disorder”? Night eating syndrome occurs with more of a grazing pattern at night and does not necessarily involve objective binge eating. Binge eating disorder can be active at night but involves binge eating episodes vs. grazing or snacking.
Night eating syndrome has the following three criteria:
1) Morning anorexia — skipping breakfast four or more mornings per week
2) Evening hyperphagia — eating more than 25 percent of your total daily calories after dinner and before bed
3) Sleep disturbance — having trouble falling or staying asleep; believing that you must have something to eat in order to fall asleep, initially; believing that you must have something to eat in order to go back to sleep if you wake up in the middle of the night
Strategies to Reduce Night Eating
If you are in the habit of binge eating at night, you can reduce this tendency. Dr. Friedman suggests that you integrate these tips into your routine:
- Don’t skip breakfast — Eat breakfast daily to "reset" your body clock; night eating syndrome is caused by circadian rhythm desynchrony.
- Practice good sleep habits — Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day. Go outside immediately after you wake up to get bright light exposure (weather permitting).
- Plan your meals wisely late in the day — Eat foods that are most likely to trigger binge eating in the afternoon. At night, have a satisfying dinner and a nighttime snack that contains protein and fresh produce.
- Indulge your cravings — Yes, you read that correctly. Night eating syndrome tends to contribute to cravings for sweet and starchy foods. Incorporate a normalized portion of something that you like to eat at night as a daytime snack. This can reduce both daytime undereating and nighttime cravings. You don’t need to eliminate these foods from your diet but you may want to eat these foods earlier in the day when you are less likely to binge on them (i.e. between lunch and dinner vs. after dinner).
- Focus on pleasurable activities at night — Avoid activities like mindless channel surfing that can be numbing at night; instead, watch a show that you love or spend time with people you enjoy being with.
- See a mental health professional — People that tend to binge eat at night may be more likely to have irritability and anxiety at night; this is something that can be addressed with an experienced mental health professional.
If you try these above tips and still struggle with binge eating at night, please know that there is available treatment for binge eating and night eating syndrome.
Night eating syndrome is underdiagnosed and often undertreated
See an eating disorders specialist to determine whether you have binge eating disorder, night eating syndrome or both. Look for a therapist that has extensive experience and knowledge in working with people with binge eating disorder and other eating disorders.
Julie Kabat Friedman, PhD is Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.