Reasons for night eating
When you’re trying to figure out how to stop late night eating, it’s important to recognize the reasons behind this behavior, so that you can begin to implement change. The three reasons below are common culprits of late night eating.
Binging and restricting can often become a cycle. Some people will find themselves binging at night, and then restricting calories the next day in order to compensate for the binge. By the end of the day, restriction and underfueling can trigger extreme hunger leading to eating past fullness once again at night.
Some people may try to restrict themselves by skipping breakfast. Not everyone is hungry in the morning, but for people who are, intentionally avoiding this meal can result in less physical and mental energy throughout the day and may increase feelings of physical and mental deprivation which can lead to eating past fullness later in the day. Most people feel better overall if they eat regularly throughout the day and do not ignore hunger signals or attempt to skip meals. (1)
At the end of the day, eating can serve as a form of comfort. Some people may eat at night in order to relieve the stress from the day, or to cope with emotions like loneliness or anxiety. One study in the European Eating Disorders Review found that eating to regulate emotions was linked to both night eating and binging. (2)
In some cases, comfort eating late at night can be a symptom of night eating syndrome, an eating disorder associated with elevated appetite in the evening and at night. Research has shown that people with night eating syndrome demonstrate a higher level of emotional eating, as well as reduced sleep quality. (3)
While some people eat in response to emotions regardless of their overall food intake, in general, physical restriction and labeling certain foods as off limits can increase the likelihood of eating in response to difficult emotions.
Poor hunger cues
If you are not well-connected to your hunger cues, this can also lead you to most of your food intake occurring late at night. Maybe you’re so busy or distracted during the day that you do not notice when you’re hungry, and it’s not until late at night that you realize you’re ravenous. Or, perhaps you eat a sufficient amount throughout the day, but end up eating in response to emotional cues or situational factors once evening rolls around.
A study in the journal Appetite found that people tend to be preoccupied with engaging in a binge eating episode when they are home alone, during the evening and nighttime, and when they are around personally desirable foods and snacks (4). Based upon this finding, those who tend to eat at night may be eating in response to something other than a hunger cue. In some cases, nighttime eating may be a symptom of binge eating disorder. Many people who struggle with binge eating disorder will often consider highly rewarding or culturally vilified foods and snacks off limits and therefore as a result of their restrictive behavior they are most likely to binge when around those foods.
Solutions for nighttime eating
In many cases, nighttime eating is linked to calorie restriction, eating for comfort, and difficulty identifying hunger cues. Given these causes of nighttime eating, specific solutions that can help reduce late night eating, including:
- Eating regularly throughout the day, including foods that you enjoy in all meals and snacks, and trying not to go too many hours between meals and snacks.
- Making sure that no foods are considered off limits, unless it’s due to an allergy or medical sensitivity.
- Developing alternative strategies for coping with stress or negative emotions, such as taking a walk, relaxing with a hot bath, journaling, or calling a friend.
- If possible, observe what your hunger cues feel like. Different people experience hunger differently and commonly recognized signs of hunger including lack of energy, growling stomach, or a feeling of the stomach being empty, can mean you have actually waited too long to eat and have reached a state of extreme hunger. (5)
- Eating at the first sign of hunger cues and stopping when full. (5)
If you employ strategies for stopping nighttime eating and find that you are unable to stop, that may be a sign of an eating disorder. In this case, you would likely benefit from reaching out for treatment from an eating disorder specialist, who can help you develop a better relationship with food and your body as well as address the mental and emotional stressors that may be contributing to the eating disorder thoughts and behaviors.