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Learn more about the results we get at Within

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How to stop eating at night

Everyone has the occasional late-night dinner or midnight snack, but for some people, overeating at night can become a regular occurrence, to the point of becoming distressful or disruptive.

When this type of disordered eating behavior reaches this point, it's generally considered part of night eating syndrome (NES). The condition is not an officially defined eating disorder, but it is still problematic for many people, affecting an estimated 1.5% of the U.S. population.1

As with any type of eating behavior that becomes disruptive, the best way to stop is to reach out for help. Disordered eating is usually caused by a complex combination of physical, emotional, and mental health issues, which are best treated by a therapist or other healthcare professional.

But if you feel you can't stop eating at night, there are other tips you can follow that can help you stop binge eating at night.

Last updated on 
October 2, 2023
October 2, 2023
Stop eating at night
In this article

What is night eating syndrome?

Night eating syndrome is not specifically defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the official list of all medically-recognized mental health conditions. Rather, the behavior falls under the category of other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED).

That hasn't stopped researchers from noting specific traits and behaviors that contribute to the issue. Night eating syndrome is characterized by hyperphagia—or a feeling of extreme, insatiable hunger—that consistently occurs in the evening. The condition also involves:1

  • Consuming 25% or more of daily calories after dinnertime
  • Waking up at least two times at night to eat

To be considered part of NES, these eating patterns can not be explained by changes in the sleep-wake cycle, such as night shift work, the effects of medication, substance use disorders, or other general medical disorders.1

Instead, patients regularly exhibit extreme limitations on food intake during the morning or earlier in the day, depression or a worsening mood at night, and poor sleep, including general trouble with falling or staying asleep.1

Night eating syndrome vs. binge eating disorder

NES can look and feel like binge-eating disorder (BED), but they have some notable differences.

Those with NES eat fewer meals during the day and eat primarily at night, while studies show that those with BED eat more during the day and tend to have more overeating episodes.

Individuals struggling with binge eating disorder also reported more shape/weight concerns and hunger cravings than people struggling with NES, while people struggling with NES had strong correlations with mood disorders, anxiety, and sleep problems.2,4

Adolescents who struggle with depression, high levels of stress, and insomnia are at risk for developing night eating syndrome as adults.

Night eating syndrome risk factors

Although NES was first described in 1955, research has progressed slowly on its etiology (root cause), diagnosis, and treatment. For example, more research is needed to determine whether NES is a sleep disorder, sleep-related eating disorder, expression of delayed circadian eating rhythm, or a metabolic condition.6

Still, some risk factors have been identified.

Adolescents who struggle with depression, high levels of stress, and insomnia are at risk for developing NES as adults.8 The idea is that eating can be a form of comfort for people dealing with mood disorders and sleep problems. Eventually, that reliance can become unhealthy, contributing to increasingly disordered thoughts and behaviors.

How to stop binge eating at night

The best way to stop eating at night if you believe there’s an underlying disorder, is to speak to your doctor and seek out treatment for night eating syndrome. The current recommended treatments include medication and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), though much more research is needed to determine the long-term efficacy of these options.6

But if you want to stop eating before bed or stop eating in the middle of the night, there are some strategies you can employ on your own that may be able to help you curb the behavior.

Avoid restriction throughout the day
Practice good sleep hygiene
Practice “mindful” eating
Develop more consistent eating habits

Finding help to stop eating in the middle of the night

Nighttime eating syndrome is fairly common. If you've thought to yourself, "Why can't I stop binge eating at night?" you may be struggling with NES or similar disordered eating issues.

In these cases, it's important to seek out help. Your primary care physician or a mental health professional can help you secure an official diagnosis or point you in the direction of the best next steps.

At Within Health, we also strive to help.

It can be difficult to stop binge eating at night, and distressing if you feel you can't stop eating at night. Our team of multidisciplinary experts can help you confront these fears and concerns, creating a treatment plan that's tailored exclusively for you based on your background and needs. And you can access all this help without having to ever leave home.

If you or a loved one are struggling with NES or other eating disorders, you can reach out today to see how to get started on your journey toward healing.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Salman, E., Kabir, R. (2022). Night Eating Syndrome. StatPearls. Accessed September 2023. 
  2. Allison, K. C., Grilo, C. M., Masheb, R. M., & Stunkard, A. J. (2005). Binge Eating Disorder and Night Eating Syndrome: A Comparative Study of Disordered Eating. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73(6), 1107–1115.
  3. Derous, D., Mitchell, S. E., Green, C. L., Chen, L., Han, J. D., Wang, Y., Promislow, D. E., Lusseau, D., Speakman, J. R., & Douglas, A. (2016). The effects of graded levels of calorie restriction: VI. Impact of short-term graded calorie restriction on transcriptomic responses of the hypothalamic hunger and circadian signaling pathways. Aging, 8(4), 642–663. 
  4. McCuen-Wurst, C., Ruggieri, M., and Allison, K.C. (2018). Disordered eating and obesity: associations between binge-eating disorder, night-eating syndrome, and weight-related comorbidities. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1411, 96-105.
  5. Muscatello, M. R. A., Torre, G., Celebre, L., Dell'Osso, B., Mento, C., Zoccali, R. A., & Bruno, A. (2022). 'In the night kitchen': A scoping review on the night eating syndrome. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 56(2), 120–136.
  6. Shoar, S., Naderan, M., Mahmoodzadeh, H., Shoar, N., & Lotfi, D. (2019). Night eating syndrome: a psychiatric disease, a sleep disorder, a delayed circadian eating rhythm, and/or a metabolic condition? Expert Review of Endocrinology & Metabolism, 14(5), 351–358.
  7. Leidy, H. J., Armstrong, C. L., Tang, M., Mattes, R. D., & Campbell, W. W. (2010). The influence of higher protein intake and greater eating frequency on appetite control in overweight and obese men. Obesity, 18(9), 1725–1732.
  8. Lepley, T., Schwager, Z., & Khalid, Z. (2022). Identification and Management of Night Eating Syndrome in the Adolescent and Young Adult Population. The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders, 24(1), 21r03062.
  9. Suni, A., Vyas, N. (2023, September 1). Mastering Sleep Hygiene: Your Path to Quality Sleep. The Sleep Foundation. Accessed September 2023.
  10. Nelson, J. B. (2017). Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You Eat. Diabetes Spectrum, 30(3), 171–174.

FAQs

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