You know what they say: night eating is the kiss of death for any dieter. You may find yourself diligently restricting calories during the day. You eat sensible oatmeal for breakfast, a salad for lunch and some fresh fruit here and there. But come nighttime, it’s a whole other ball game.
All kinds of things can cause nighttime hunger. Maybe you’re starved throughout the day. Maybe you’re bored or stressed, or maybe it’s something more serious. Night eating that goes on for prolonged periods of time can be linked to conditions like night eating syndrome and binge eating disorder.
If you’re tempted to head to the fridge at all hours, check out these signs and treatments for night eating syndrome.
What is night eating syndrome?
Night eating syndrome is an eating disorder marked by a notable delay in the normal circadian (24 hours) of eating. Most people, by default, eat according to circadian rhythms. That means meals are spaced out between early in the morning to early in the evening. With night eating syndrome, that normal pattern is out of whack. Often people with this condition begin eating in the afternoon and end later in the night.
When circadian rhythms are set off balance, a person could have less energy during the morning and more energy later on. That doesn’t sound so bad, so long as you’re consuming a normal amount of food, exercising and getting enough sleep. That being said, in some instances people with the disorder are waking up to eat, making it hard to revert to a normal sleep schedule.
Binge eating disorder (BED), on the other hand, is a severe, life-threatening eating disorder. BED is typically characterized by consuming massive amounts of food very quickly, on a recurring basis. People with BED often report feeling a loss of control, shame and guilt after a binge. In some cases, patients purge to counter the effects of overeating.
Night eating syndrome doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is overeating or feels as though their eating habits are out of control. But there may be some overlap between the two conditions.
There is no known cause for night eating syndrome. Like other eating disorders, the answer may lie in the genes. But researchers have found that stress, anxiety and moods can trigger night eating.
What can you do to kick your night eating habit?
If you’re a stress eater or an emotional eater, there are some things you can do to get your body back on track. These tips are geared toward people who have a habit of snacking at night, not a full-blown disorder.
- Drink more water: Drinking a glass of water before a meal can keep you from overeating. Drinking water as you eat will do the same. Plus, staying hydrated makes workouts more bearable, makes your skin better and prevents constipation. Some people mistake the sensation of being thirsty with being hungry, so be sure you’re getting your requisite eight glasses a day.
- Plan your meals: Get used to meal prep and stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, eggs and other healthy staples. If you don’t have snack food on hand, you won’t be able to eat them.
- Stop overeating after a workout: Food isn’t a reward. Stop telling yourself you “deserve” ice cream, chips or anything else. Instead, focus on delicious, healthy meals that fit within your caloric allotment.
- No more skipping meals: Sure, you should only eat when you’re hungry, but skipping meals in an effort to lose weight often backfires. Chances are that depriving yourself will simply lead to overindulging.
If you suspect there’s a more serious issue at play, you should start by paying a visit to your doctor. Here are some treatments for night eating syndrome:
- Antidepressants: Some research suggests that antidepressants can help change the brain chemistry that compels people to eat during the night. More research is needed to confirm whether this is a viable means of treating the disorder, but talk to your doctor about using antidepressants as a potential solution.
- Therapy: If you have a legitimate night eating condition like binge eating or night eating syndrome, therapy could be a big part of your healing process. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) works to identify patterns and change them, which may be just the thing you need to get back to a normal eating routine.
- Work with a nutritionist: You might want to enlist the services of a nutritionist who can help you learn how to stock your kitchen better and plan meals that will keep you full and healthy throughout the day. Limiting your caloric intake too much can trigger binges later in the day, negating your workout efforts and healthy eating intentions.
Night eating can contribute to weight gain and all the associated issues. While a snack here and there is nothing to worry about, chronic night eating could be the sign that something is off inside your body. Again, we recommend getting in touch with your doctor if you’re having trouble fighting the urge to eat after hours.