Night Eating

It’s common for binge eaters to primarily binge at night; and even after binge eating stops, you may still find yourself having food cravings after dark. Some people are bothered by these late night food cravings, and wonder if giving in to them means that they are overindulging; or conversely, if ignoring those cravings means that they are being too “restrictive.” Everyone has to navigate the balance between restriction and overindulging, and at night is when we usually have the most opportunities to do that. Most people don’t get up in the morning craving a piece of cake, but after the work of the day is done, that piece of cake may seem much more appealing.

I think the most important thing to learn is that night food cravings—especially for sugar and unhealthy food—are extremely, extremely common. One study found that appetite and interest in food peaks at around 8 pm, as part of our natural circadian rhythm. So, when you find yourself craving a sugary snack after dinner, know that you are not alone and there is nothing wrong with you. There are many theories as to why this is so, but I think the most convincing explanation of this appetite pattern is from an evolutionary perspective, as summarized in this article. During the day, we are in “hunt” mode: working, moving, and doing (and in the ancient past–hunting). Once we slow down at night, our survival mechanisms recognize this and signal, “time to eat!”  It’s as if we are wired to want to eat more at night to replenish the energy stores we lost during the day, and store up more for tomorrow.    

We crave sweets at night not only to store up energy, but for quick energy in the moment. At night we are tired and our brains are energy depleted. If we choose to stay awake or have to stay awake, our brains will naturally view sugary food as attractive and rewarding because it is a source of quick energy. Sure, a banana would do the trick, but for most people, that’s not what is the most appealing after dark. Our self-control functions in the prefrontal cortex are at their weakest when we are exhausted, so it’s no wonder that many people don’t make their healthiest food choices at night.

For active binge eaters, these natural mechanisms often lead directly to urges to binge due to conditioning; or their decision to follow a night craving leads to “I’ve already blown it, so I might as well keep eating” thoughts. Instead of learning of the normalcy of night cravings, binge eaters often learn that wanting to eat at night is a signal that they aren’t emotionally fulfilled, or that their day was too stressful, or that they didn’t eat the right foods for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. While stress, sleep, and diet patterns certainly can play a role in the frequency/intensity of night cravings, realizing that this type of heightened interest in food–especially junk food–is normal may help you spend less time asking “why,” and instead focus on some useful strategies to manage the cravings when they occur.

Common advise for dealing with night eating is: keep healthier food options in the house, make sure you are eating enough throughout the day, eat dinner a bit later, do some light exercise at night, stay hydrated, make plans for when cravings hit, or just go to bed earlier.  These suggestions are useful. I’m now going to give you 4 more things to think about when night cravings hit:

1.)    Stop Telling Yourself You “Shouldn’t” Eat at Night

We’ve all heard the common advice that eating late at night leads to more weight gain, but it’s actually rather controversial. While the first article I linked above says that the body doesn’t process food as well at night so night eating can lead to weight gain, the second article says that eating late at night is actually better for fat loss. Here is an article that says overall food intake matters more than timing, and another article that says the link between late night eating and weight gain is not a causal relationship.

You can’t take all weight loss advice at face value and use it to make rigid rules for yourself.  Saying, “It’s late, I shouldn’t eat anything” can lead you to want to eat more. You have freedom to eat at night if you want to, and only you can make that choice. I have a snack most nights before bed, and I’ve also eaten in the middle of the night from time to time since recovery. I’ve struggled with insomnia at various points, and during those sleepless nights, I’d eat about every 2 to 3 hours. I didn’t plan the intervals; that’s just when my body would naturally signal hunger. I’ve also been awake all night countless times with my babies, and I’ve spent long nights writing; and again, I eat when I’m hungry. The reason most people don’t eat in the middle of the night is because they are sleeping.  If you are awake for one reason or another, don’t beat yourself up for being hungry and having some food.

2.)  Enjoy Your Late Night Snack

If you decide to eat something at night–either before bed or if you awaken–don’t do it in a guilt-ridden way.  Own your choice and enjoy the food.  It sometimes helps people to put the food on a plate and go sit down, instead of standing at the refrigerator, because it feels more like a well-thought out choice instead of an impulsive one.

When I was in therapy for bulimia, I worked with a nutritionist who created a meal plan for me. She spread out my calories evenly during the day, which is fine, but it didn’t quite feel right to me and now I understand why. I didn’t find myself wanting a big breakfast or lunch, and found myself basically forcing it in. Then, I’d come to the end of the day not feeling like my dinner or bedtime snack was big enough. I’d become frustrated and resentful; and if I decided to eat something late at night, I’d feel so guilty that I wouldn’t truly enjoy it. This mindset often led directly to urges to binge, and I’d proceed to eat 6000 more calorie after my snack. My therapist explained that this night pattern stemmed from emotional issues.      

Now, looking back I can see that I simply needed more calories at night. I was an athlete at the time, and big meals during the day weren’t practical because they made me feel sluggish and full for track practice–which was usually twice per day. I needed more at night because that’s when my body signaled me to replenish my energy reserves. Altering my eating plan wouldn’t have stopped my binge eating, but there was simply no need for me to beat myself up over wanting to eat more at night. I should have eaten a little less during the day to fit my lifestyle, and then enjoyed a larger dinner and bedtime snack without all the shame. Everyone has different patterns; trust yourself to settle on eating times that work for you.   

3.)  Deal with Blood Sugar Problems

 If you are waking out of a deep sleep in the middle of the night feeling hungry, it could be a drop in blood sugar.  The only way to know this for sure would be to get a blood glucose meter, which is likely not practical for everyone, but you can still try the following suggestion.  If you think your middle of the night hunger is low blood sugar, sipping some diluted juice before eating anything can take the edge off the craving, and has the added benefit of hydrating you to ensure your craving isn’t partially due to thirst. 

Then, if you are still feeling hungry, you will be in a less ravenous state and you can make a rational decision about what to eat; then sit down and enjoy it. Of course, you don’t want to do that every night because it interrupts sleep, so as a long term strategy, you’ll want to balance blood sugar overall. Some people find it helpful to eat something right before bed that will help regulate blood sugar—including protein, healthy fat, and possibly some high quality carbohydrates.  

4.)   Use Detachment in Conjunction with Other Strategies

If your night cravings feel problematic, then it absolutely makes sense to address them. It’s true that many people get more night cravings if they are overtired, overworked, or overstressed; so working on these areas can often tweak your physiology enough to reduce nighttime cravings. So can meditation, exercise, and even becoming happier. So can changing your diet, and supplements, such as L-Glutamine or Licorice. However, there will inevitably be times when life is rough, or there is no time to meditate or exercise, or you have no extra money for supplements.

That’s why it’s important to know that you aren’t a slave to any type of craving. Yes, it’s normal to have night cravings; yes, it’s okay to follow them; yes, it’s great to enjoy whatever food you choose to eat at night; but you are still capable of a drawing a line when enough is enough, or deciding to simply say no. You can use the same detachment strategies that you use for binge urges for the more “normal” night cravings as well. Since night cravings aren’t always due to habit, separating yourself from them and not acting on them–while a useful method to deal with cravings in the moment–will not necessarily get these types of cravings out of your life completely. Going forward, try not to make such a big deal of night cravings, and remember–whether you choose to follow them or not–they never have to lead to a binge.  

 

*This post is not a substitute for medical advice.  If you think your night cravings are due to a health problem, please seek medical guidance.  

 

 

 

 

11 thoughts on “Night Eating

  1. I had 7 binges in July, and 6 of them happened when I woke up from sleep to use restroom. I will apply your suggestions. Thank You!

  2. I have suffered from Night Eating Syndrome and Sleep Related Eating Disorder for 15 years with periods of time that it went away for many months at a time. For the past year it has been extremely bad and I have awakenings multiple times a night with the urge to eat in order to fall back asleep. Usually I am not even hungry. I realize that this disorder has probably happened due to making it a habit that has become ingrained in my subconscious from doing it so many times. Do you have any advice on how to stop this, being that it happens when I am least aware of my actions (half asleep, but aware enough to fix food at 3am). This disorder has caused me to gain 40 lbs and has caused chronic depression and anxiety disorders. I do already see a therapist and have seen many doctors but they are unable to help this complex issue. If you have any advice on how I can possibly separate these subconscious compulsions to eat from my mind and make conscious choices, I’d greatly appreciate it. Thanks so much 🙂

    1. Thanks for writing, and I apologize for my slow response time right now. Night eating episodes are probably the most challenging, because like you said, you are the least aware of your actions. However, I still believe it’s possible. Think of it this way…if you were to wake up with an urge to do something completely outrageous, do you think you could stop yourself from doing it, even at 3am? I also like to think of caring for a newborn at night: the mother/father is operating in a near- zombie state, but still manages to do what needs to be done. However, the “I need to eat to fall back asleep” argument that the brain can produce in the middle of the night can be difficult to detach from, because after all, I’m sure you have a lot to do the next day and operating on a lack of sleep is not ideal! It’s easy to just eat and go back to sleep rather than stay awake with the urges, although I’m sure you’ll realize in the long run losing some sleep to break the habit will be well worth it. Some people are helped by posting some sort of reminder on a door/refrigerator to wake them up, but when I tried that during my eating disorder, I would just ignore it. Some people find it helpful to have another activity planned when they wake up…something that doesn’t require much brain power, and is also likely to lull you back to sleep. You could also do what I talked about above and allow/welcome the night eating for now, but work to make it healthier and more moderate over time. Some people find it helpful to prepare a moderate/mostly-good-for-you snack before bed, so it’s waiting for you in the middle of the night. By the time you are finished eating the moderate snack, you’ll likely be awake enough to detach from any urges to eat more/binge. You can decrease the amount of food that you prepare over time, and then eventually try to cut it out completely, if that’s what you want; however, like I said above, I don’t think all night eating is problematic. I hope this helps a little!

      1. This is Kathryn Hansen, by the way, I can’t figure out how to make myself not be “admin_BoB” on wordpress!

    2. I deal with the same issue…its so discouraging because I can do great ignoring urges during the day, but it all goes to crap during the night. Ive locked myself in my room, posted notes for myself, everything….it sucks. I’ve yet to hear from someone who has overcome this.

  3. Thank you for your great informative site I have a binge eating disorder and night eating for very long time since I retired the night eating is worse having gained 20 pounds in the year now at my heaviest what is very odd is that I am a mental health professional he led many people but unable to take care of my self I am 66 and now fear for my health on the plus size I began to do water aerobics and walking which helps I had a nasty binge last few weeks and had to sleep off the carb load thanks for listening

    1. Hi Nancy,
      I’m sorry you are struggling with this. I hope some of the suggestions in this post and the advice to Jillain above will help you in some way.

  4. Thank you Kathryn for this article. This is a very important topic for me personally; I found your reply to Jillian to be especially helpful. Usually when I wake up at night I feel like I’ve been woken up by hunger pangs, and (as you rightly pointed out) I want to get back to sleep as soon as possible because the thought of fighting sleep at work the next day is horrible. The problem is I know that eating a lot of carbohydrate-rich food is an easy ticket to drowsy land. So I suppose that my response – to binge on cereal and toast – is half rational (scientifically sound reasoning) but also half non-rational (I want to avoid binge eating more than anything). I find that waking from any sleep, even if it’s a nice 30 minute nap on the sofa at the weekend, causes an urge to get something to eat. I know this is probably something to do with blood sugar. My plan of action is to try and force myself to prepare a cup of tea, perhaps with a teaspoon of sugar. The tea will take 5 minutes to prepare, and at least another 15 minutes to drink – 20 minutes should be long enough to allow my sleepy brain to disassociate myself from the urge and meanwhile the warming sweet tea should take the edge off the craving.

  5. I’m a binge eater and I also I wake-up in the middle of the night every night because I have reactive hypoglycemia. I wonder if this blood sugar condition contributed to my B.E.D. Working with my naturopath, I’ve learned how to deal with my nighttime low blood sugars. Besides eating a high protein snack with a bit of slow carbs right before bedtime, I also have a protein snack like hard boiled egg, nuts or a piece of meat beside my bed. When I wake up, I take one good bite and can then go back to sleep. I hope this can help someone.

  6. Hi Kathryn, I belong to this nihht craving category and I totslly see myself in what you said in the post. There is something that keeps going on in my mind when I have cravings that lead to binge, and I really hope you can give me your opinion as I cannot find anything similar in any blog.
    Point 1. It’s hard to find the limit btw simple crave and binge. It starts as a craving and so I tell myself “just allow yourself to eat some chips, you never do”. Next thing you know I crave more and more and I cannot stop. How do I mark the line?
    Point 2. When I binge I think “you’d better eat this bread/chips/crackers now as you usually can’t”. The thing is that I try to avoid processed food as much as I can, so on a daily basis I will not eat crakers, pizza, bread or chips. I used to eat a lot of it. I thought this could be one of the reasons why I binge on carbs, but then I also remember that in the past when I used to eat carbs with no limitation, I used to also binge on carbs. At that time of course my thoughts were not similar to the ones I have now, I didn’t think “eat it today as tomorrow you will not”, not sure what my thoughts were at the time actually. I was following a low fat and high carb diet, instead now I try high protein, more fat and loe carb.

    Looking forward to your opinion on this, thanks.

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