Admit it. You have stood in front of your fridge sometime after 9 pm looking for some snack to munch on. And more often than not you choose that hunk of chocolate cake or bag of chips over vegetables or a piece of fruit. Snacking at night is not a new phenomenon. It has been happening since late night TV became intriguing. What is relatively new and starting to cause some major health problems is night eating. While this is not a classified eating disorder yet, it is well on its way.
So what exactly is night eating? Don’t we all technically eat at night and call it dinner? Yes, but night eating is different in the fact that those who have night eating syndrome (NES), will consume more than half their daily calorie intake after 8 pm. Generally people who suffer from NES will eat very little in the morning and throughout the day, but once evening comes they will consume large portions of food. Now this disorder is different from overeating because night eaters are not necessarily eating a mass amount of food all at once. Instead, it is generally portioned out into snack-like meals throughout the night. NES is also different from sleep eating because the person is fully awake and aware of the food they are eating.
Night eating can cause health problems in a few different areas. First, when you eat a lot right before bed your body has a hard time focusing on getting to sleep because all of its attention is on trying to digest the food you just ate. This can cause insomnia or at the very least unrestful sleep. Sleep is very important to your body’s health because it is when it repairs itself and resets for the next day. Lack of sleep also messes with your metabolism, slowing it down and causing it to not run as efficiently and therefore causing weight gain. Unfortunately, if someone with NES has trouble sleeping they will tend to eat even more, exacerbating all issues. NES also causes problem with weight because when you consume a large amount of calories before bed or at night in general, your body doesn’t have any way to burn those calories off and a lot of them get stored as fat. Evenings tend to be the time when most of us are at our least active. When was the last time you decided to run 10 miles or go to a crossfit class after 9 pm? Also like a lot of other eating disorders, NES is connected with depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. Overall, not a fun experience.
So why does night eating occur? There is no concrete answer to that question yet because there hasn’t been much research on NES. The doctor in this article believes that people who suffer from this disorder are stressed or anxious and are eating at night as a way to self-medicate and feel better. This doesn’t work, obviously, because it leads to health issues, and that causes more stress and anxiety. Others believe that night eating is caused by a neurotransmitter imbalance, and while there has been some success treating NES with medication, it isn’t conclusive enough to say that is the problem. The good news is that with a little bit of time and motivation there are steps you can take to help with night eating. One of the first things is to make sure you are getting enough food throughout your day. I know some people complain they just can’t eat a big meal in the morning or they don’t have time for a lunch. That’s fine. I’m not trying to tell you when exactly you need to eat. Just make sure you ARE eating during the day. Make sure you are also choosing foods that will keep you going and won’t just give you a quick burst of energy followed by a crash. Think fiber filled foods like fruits and veggies and whole grains. Have a plan for your dinner time and set a time for dinner and stick to it. Again, I’m not telling you an exact optimal time to eat your dinner. Just pick a time, like 7, and make sure you eat at that time. After your dinner, have a night time ritual. Create some type of routine that signals to your body you are done eating and it is time to start winding down. Do some yoga, read a chapter in a book, watch a TV show, or have some hot tea (my favorite). Once you create a routine an stick to it, your body will learn that it is time to start getting ready for bed, not time to keep eating.
As always, if it seems like you might have NES, talk with your doctor. They can help point you in the right direction and give you more ways to help. I don’t want people reading this to freak out about eating at night, that’s not the point. It is ok to snack (on healthy foods of course) at night time. Just make sure you aren’t eating an entire three course meal before you hit the sack!