Overeating at night, also known as “night eating syndrome” (NES), is a very common type of binge eating behavior that we see in individuals with disordered eating. It can manifest as recurrent episodes of excessive food consumption after dinner, usually accompanied by feelings of shame or distress. Additional symptoms can include morning anorexia, insomnia, and evening mood deterioration.
Night eating syndrome is considered a separate condition from binge eating disorder—though there is overlap in the emotions and behaviors of the two conditions, and a person can have both. No matter what you’re struggling with, it is helpful to be aware of your behavior patterns and have the language to discuss them.
A little history of night eating syndrome: First described in 1955 by American psychiatrist Albert Stunkard (who was also the first mental health professional to describe binge eating disorder), night eating syndrome was originally characterized as a combination of an eating disorder, sleep disorder, and mood disorder. Interestingly, “night eating syndrome” was described in 1955, while “binge eating disorder” was coined by Stunkard four years later, in 1959.
Although NES was described first, it has “historically been understudied”—as has the research on treatment for it. In 2013, night eating syndrome was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) for the first time. Estimates of how prevalent NES is vary, but in the U.S., it may occur in 1% to 2% of the population.
In individuals with eating disorders, obesity, and/or bariatric surgery patients, it is estimated that the prevalence is higher: between 2.8% to 8.2%. NES should not be confused with “nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder,” which is when a person eats while sleepwalking, and they are not awake or conscious during the eating. Breaking a destructive cycle involves changing the pattern.
If you struggle with excessive night eating, here are some ways to help you move forward in your healing journey.
Notice your overeating patterns.
Becoming more mindful of what you do is a good first step on the path to healing. When we overeat, it’s not uncommon to feel guilt or shame while we’re eating or immediately after. Practice noticing the actions and feelings of different stages of your overeating: from the time you realize you want to binge, to while you are in the middle of it, to after you are done.
Introduce a kind voice.
No matter what you notice, you can practice silently (or aloud) saying something kind and reassuring to yourself, such as “and that’s okay” or “I’m here for myself.”
- For example: “I just ate a whole thing of ice cream—and that’s okay.”
- “I just ate way too much food and I feel like such a failure. But I am willing to be honest with myself, and I am here for myself.”
People with disordered eating are often self critical and controlling, so introducing an internal voice that is kind and accepting is a good counterbalance, helping to disrupt the established pattern of criticism and control. It may not feel natural at first, but the words still have healing power.
Journal before and after eating.
A journaling practice is a powerful way to make your noticing more of a concrete practice. The idea here is to commit to being present with your feelings even—and especially—when they are difficult. Connecting to details rather than getting lost in the experience of eating (or distracting yourself after eating) is a way to invite mindfulness into what may have been a way to disconnect.
By showing up for yourself and beginning to recognize behavioral and emotional patterns, you are putting yourself in a much better place to make healthy changes in your life going forward.
Some questions you can ask yourself to answer in your journal:
Before the binge:
- What activity did I just finish doing?
- How am I feeling right now?
- How do I want to feel?
- What are some other things that might help me achieve that feeling instead of eating?
After the binge:
- What room did I eat in?
- Was I sitting or standing?
- Did I eat from the containers or did I serve the food on plates and bowls?
- How does my body feel?
- What am I feeling emotionally?
You may begin to notice patterns around when you feel the urge to overeat and how you are feeling when you want to overeat. As you continue to reflect on the behaviors you hope to change, you might come up with new ways to calm and regulate yourself when you feel triggered situationally or emotionally.
Reset your sleep–wake–eat rhythm.
Consider what a healthy pattern of sleep and eating might look like, and use that as a goal to move toward. A dietitian trained in eating disorder recovery can be hugely helpful in setting healthy food goals—both in timing and which foods you choose to eat. If you struggle with going to bed at a reasonable hour or you have trouble sleeping, work on your sleep hygiene, too:
- Go for a morning walk to get that early morning dose of sun.
- Exercise during the day.
- Go for an evening walk as the sun is going down.
- Go to bed at the same time every night.
- Remove electronic devices from bed, like phones and tablets
Are you ready for help improving your relationship with food? At Evolve Wellness Group, our therapists and dietitians are experienced in helping people recover from eating disorders, and we can help you too.
Get in touch today to schedule a complimentary 15-minute intake call.