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.  

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