Night Eating Syndrome
Night Eating Syndrome

We have all no doubt enjoyed the fun of a midnight feast. But for the 1 to 2 per cent of people in the UK with night eating syndrome (NES), eating during the night is no fun at all.

Night Eating Syndrome (Night Time Binge Eating)

By Dietitian, Lyndel Costain BSc RD

The eating disorder Night Time Binge Eating affects up to 2% of people and for them, it is a nightmare. It disturbs their sleep, makes weight management extremely difficult and means they are more likely to be stressed and depressed.

Night Eating Syndrome

NES was first recognised in 1955 by American psychiatrist, Professor Albert Stunkard, who  still studies it today.

He found that a number of his very overweight patients had  little appetite in the morning, but then ate more than half their daily calories after their evening meal and into the night  – often waking 3 to 4 times to eat carb-rich snacks.

Not surprisingly they also complained of insomnia. Little attention was then paid to his findings, but ongoing research has allowed better understanding of Night Time Binge Eating. It has also revealed that it affects at least 1 in 11 people attending weight loss clinics.

Is Night Eating Syndrome an Eating Disorder?

Currently, NES is not categorised as an eating disorder nor is there a standard way of defining it.

There is also no clear cause of NES, but upsets have been found in night time levels of appetite, mood and sleep regulating hormones such as leptin, melatonin and cortisol.

Professor Stunkard’s studies also suggest that people with NES have an irregularity in their natural rhythm of eating, making them want to eat 5 or 6 hours later than is normal.

Night Eating Syndrome Hereditary?

NES appears to run in families, suggesting a genetic link. It is also more likely to rear its head when susceptible people experience stressful life events such as an illness in the family, separation or losing a job.

While it is more common amongst people who are overweight, it also affects people in the healthy weight range (but in time they may become overweight if their NES isn’t addressed).

Symptoms of Night Eating Syndrome

People with NES usually skip breakfast, eat little during the day and feel very hungry in the evening. Their mood tends to worsen as the evening progresses.

They wake during the night, often feeling they must eat something to allow them to sleep, but usually aren’t hungry. This extra snacking means they typically eat 500 calories a day more than people without NES.

They often think they lack self-control and feel ashamed and embarrassed so try to keep their night eating a secret. Their sleep and mood disturbances can affect general well being. 

Are you a Night Time Binge Eater?

If you answer ‘yes’ to all or most of these questions, talk to your doctor for more information and support.

Do you:

  1. Rarely, if ever, feel hungry in the morning?
  2. Overeat in the evening, especially after your evening meal?
  3. Wake during the night and eat. (People with NES wake up at least once a night and are often unable to go back to sleep unless they have something to eat. On average they eat 1.4 times per night, or about 9 times a week.)
  4. Often feel sad, anxious and stressed, or feel depressed? (Mood can be worse in the evening.)

Night Eating Syndrome Help

NES involves upsets with eating, sleep and mood, so all three may need to be addressed in some way.

Seeking professional help from a doctor is important – they can also refer people for more specialist help if required, for example from a dietitian to help with establishing a regular eating pattern or a therapist or counsellor for help with mood or stress management, and behaviour change skills.

Specific anti-depressant medication may also be recommended in some cases. Regular physical activity can also help mood, stress, weight, and sleep.

Dark, quiet bedrooms helps improve sleep.

People with NES often have low self-esteem or not feel worthy of help. Knowing it is a recognised health problem can be an important step towards them seeking the help they deserve.

How WLR Can Help Stop Night Time Binge Eating

One of the key strategies for helping people with NES (or any type of eating disorder) is to re-establish an eating pattern of 3 meals - starting with breakfast – and 2 snacks e.g. mid afternoon and supper time at regular times each day.

This helps regulate appetite over the day, and evening, allowing people to regain control of their eating – and build confidence.

Another key strategy is to keep a food diary, to initially learn more about eating patterns and the food choices made, and then to plan and make helpful changes.

Knowing you will record what you eat helps people to stop and think and make better choices. Knowing what is going on with your eating again helps you to feel more in control and confident around food.

The tools offered by WLR can help you to do both of these things.  They also encourage regular physical activity plus support from the WLR community.

One Step at a Time

If you feel you do have problems with night eating/night time binge eating and want to establish a more regular eating pattern, it is best to make changes one step at a time and start with a calorie level that allows you to maintain your weight.

Once you feel more in control of your eating, and have a regular eating rhythm, then calculate your calorie level for gradual and healthy weight loss and make the most of what WLR has to offer.

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For people with an eating disorder, BEAT recognises the problems of night time binge eating.

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