By Deborah Kesten, VIP Contributor at Thrive Global
Erica has been obsessing about her night eating for so long, she can hardly recall when she didn’t eat throughout much of the night. Did it start as a teenager when she would occasionally raid the fridge in the middle of the night? Surely her night eating was no longer a sometimes thing; rather, she’s been doing it almost every night for more than three years.
To justify eating whatever she wanted well into the wee small hours, Erica wouldn’t eat breakfast or much of anything during the day. Then, around dinnertime, her “six-hour dinner” would begin. First she would eat dinner, then after dinner, she would start snacking. Then she’d have another snack, then another…until it was time for bed. After falling asleep, Erica would wake up around 1am, and snack on more of her favorite chocolate chip cookies before falling asleep again. Depending on whether she had work the next day, she would have one or two more “snacking episodes” before morning. All the while she would rationalize her ongoing eating; after all, she hadn’t eaten much all day.
Clearly, the amount of food Erica ate at night far outweighed the limited amount of calories she’d consumed while working at her day job. In the morning, feeling quite queasy and depressed, she would berate herself for her out-of-control eating behavior. The solution? Cut calories during the day…again…until dinnertime. Somehow, she couldn’t stop this way of thinking—and living—even though it was bringing her nothing but misery.
Erica has lots of company in her struggle with nighttime eating. Called night eating syndrome (NES), as many as six million Americans suffer from this newly defined disorder. Include the 10 percent of obese people who seek treatment for their obesity, and the number increases to 10 million. As daunting, experts estimate that more than 33 percent of morbidly obese individuals—those who are 100 or more pounds overweight—are affected by NES.
At its core, NES describes a bunch of evening-eating behavior patterns that continue for at least two months. It differs from a simple snack or a single episode of out-of-control binge eating in that it involves ongoing eating throughout the evening and/or nighttime hours.
The condition has lots of other names: nighttime hunger, nocturnal eating, night eating or drinking (syndrome), nocturnal eating (or drinking) syndrome; even the “Dagwood” syndrome. Regardless of what it’s called, NES isn’t due to hunger; rather, it’s likely to be a combined eating, mood, and sleeping disorder, says Albert Stunkard, M.D., of the University of Pennsylvania’s Weight & Eating Disorders Program.
Do You Have NES? Take Our Quick Quiz
To get a better sense of whether you may have NES, consider the questions in our quick quiz:
- Do you regularly awaken and eat throughout the night?
- Do you typically eat more food after dinner than: a) during dinner itself? b) than you’ve eaten during the day?
- Do you often feel upset about how much you ate the night before?
- During a night-eating episode, do you feel anxious, moody, tense, nervous, depressed, or guilty? In other words, anything but enjoyment?
- Do you typically turn to high-carb foods (such as cake, cookies, bread, chips, ice cream, etc.) during your nighttime eating episodes?
- Do you often skip breakfast because you have no appetite in the morning?
- Do you have little or no appetite during the day?
If you have NES, feeling bad about overeating—both physically and emotionally—isn’t the only outcome. The aftereffects of ongoing night eating can influence your weight in unexpected ways.
NES: A Triple Weight-Whammy
When most of us think of late-night eating, the first concern that comes to mind for many is the likely weight gain from consuming all those extra calories. Sure, the number of calories you consume each day (and night) are key players in how much you weigh, but so, too, are other unseen, harder-to-measure, late-night eating weight-whammies.
Climbing calories. The formula is familiar: Consume more calories (energy) from food than your body burns (energy expenditure), and you’ll pack on extra pounds. This is likely for most of us, but it’s not the whole weight-gain story. Rather, more and more studies are revealing that when you eat may have an even greater impact on weight than how much you eat. Indeed, eating most of your calories in the evening seems to be the best insurance for gaining weight. Why? It creates havoc with your hormones anddamages the body’s centuries-old biological clock.
Hormone havoc. The research team: Albert Stunkard, MD, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Weight & Eating Disorders Program and the University Hospital in Tromso, Norway.
The study: Conduct a behavioral study to monitor food intake, mood alterations, sleep disturbances, nighttime snacking—and hormonal (naturally occurring chemical messengers) fluctuations—in people with NES.
The findings: People with night-eating syndrome have lower levels of plasma melatonin, leptin and cortisol—hormones linked to sleep and appetite.
Link to weight. Without adequate levels of leptin to control appetite and suppress hunger, you don’t experience satiety when you’ve eaten enough, so you’re more likely to keep eating and overeat.1
Cracked clock. When researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in collaboration with the University of Murcia and Tufts University, studied 420 overweight people in a 20-week weight-loss treatment program in Spain, they found that late-eaters—those who consumed 40 percent of total daily calories during lunch—after 3 pm—lost significantly less weight than those who ate the lunch before 3 pm; late-lunch eaters also had a much slower rate of weight loss; and they either skipped breakfast or ate little in the morning—another behavior of those with NES.2 What might be the reason you’re likely to gain weight if you eat a lot later in the day or evening? Eating when your body is meant to relax and restore itself busts your body’s built-in biological clock—Mother Nature’s natural rhythm of sleep and wakefulness.3,4
The take-away: Simply put, human beings aren’t meant to eat a lot in the evening hours. Rather, when the sun goes down, your body is “coded” to rest and restore itself. This means that when you eat a lot at night—and in turn, sleep is impaired, you’re out of rhythm with your natural biological clock. The end result? You have a formula for gaining weight and making it hard to lose weight.
Treating NES: Some Proactive Possibilities
Because NES is believed to be a complex of challenging eating, mood, and sleeping disorders, for many of us, overcoming it isn’t an easy fix. Still, there are lots of proactive steps you can take to turn nighttime eating into a positive, balanced, relationship to food, eating, and weight.
Here, some take-action possibilities:
- Make changes that stick. Before taking action to transform disordered eating into optimal eating, it’ll help if you first know what it takes to change eating and other lifestyle habits, such as smoking and managing stress. To make changes that “stick,” discover the step-by-step process that deep-down change requires. Familiarize yourself with James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente’s “5 stages of change” to discover how to achieve an experiential shift in your attitudes about food.
- Consider a sleep specialist. Your physical and emotional health depends on a night of good, deep sleep—and NES can interfere with the restful sleep your body needs to restore and regenerate. Sleep medicine is a medical specialty devoted to diagnosing and treating sleep disturbances and disorders. If your nighttime eating is impeding your sleep, a sleep doctor may provide insights into ways to break an erratic sleep cycle.
- Seek professional help. A psychiatrist can prescribe medications, which may be useful if your night eating is linked to fluctuations in moods or hormones. A psychologist and other therapists may empower you with insights and techniques that modify eating behaviors. Professionals at eating disorder centers are specifically trained to treat people with food-related problems. If you decide a therapist is your best plan of action, check to see that s/he specializes in disordered eating.
- Become a daytime eater. Commit to shifting most of your caloric intake to the daytime; to say, before 6pm—even if you don’t feel like eating breakfast or other meals during the day…yet.
- Read a relevant book. Overcoming Night Eating Syndrome: A Step-by-Step Guide to Breaking the Cycle by Kelly C. Allison has lots of insights into NES Identifying the signs, journaling exercises, and relaxation and visualization techniques, may help you break problematic NES behavior patterns.
Discovering your overeating styles is another option. Our scientifically sound Whole Person Integrative EatingTM dietary lifestyle offers insights into the root causes of overeating, and a comprehensive, evidence-based program for overcoming overeating and ensuing overweight and obesity. Consider taking our free “What’s Your Overeating Style? Self-Assessment Quiz” to find out more about reasons you may overeat: http://makeweightlosslast.com/2013/05/06/general-introduction/
Finding True Nourishment
Compulsive overeating. Sleep disturbances. Mood disorders. A relatively new disorder, Stunkard believes NES may be some people’s special response to stress. The good news is that recent research has teased out insights into NES, which reveals that not only what you eat—but also when—has a powerful effect on weight and mind-body well-being.
We want to propose yet another, big-picture perspective that underlies what research has recently revealed about NES: Overeating at night—so much so that it continually disrupts sleep—is in direct opposition to how human beings ate and slept for millennia. In other words, honor the cycle of eating and sleeping that allowed humankind not only to survive, but to thrive and flourish, and, in the process, body, mind, and soul may find true nourishment.
- Birketvedt GS, Florholmen J, Sundsfjord J, et al. Behavioral and neuroendocrine characteristics of the night-eating syndrome. JAMA 1999;282:657-663.
- M Garaulet, P Gómez-Abellán, J J Alburquerque-Béjar, Y-C Lee, J M Ordovás, F A J L Scheer. Timing of food intakepredicts weight loss effectiveness. International Journal of Obesity, 2013.
- Arble DM, Bass J, Laposky AD, Vitaterna MH, Turek FW. Circadian timing of food intake contributes to weight gain. Obesity. 2009; 17(11): 2100-2, PMID 19730426.
- Sherman H, Genzer Y, Cohen R, Chapnik N, Madar Z, Froy O. Timed high-fat diet resets circadian metabolism and prevents obesity. FASEB journal : official publication of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. 2012; 26(8): 3493-502, PMID 22593546.