When eating disorders are brought to mind, most people think of anorexia and bulimia. There are others, including Night Eating Syndrome, or NES.
This disorder is far more prevalent than most realize. As with most eating disorders, sufferers are very secretive; the nocturnal aspect makes this even more so.
Physical and emotional health can be severely compromised by this condition, as it disrupts not only healthy eating, but also sleep patterns. Its disruptive and damaging effects are not limited to the evening, but affect almost every aspect of a person’s life.
In this short report on excessive nighttime food consumption that can lead to dramatic health problems, we will take a look at exactly what night eating syndrome is, and what causes it.
You will learn the symptoms and complications of this condition, as well as specific steps you can take to manage and overcome NES. There is also a resource section, with links to further information, if more is required.
As with any addictive behavior, the causes can differ, but the responses are largely the same for those who are affected. This should hope to those who wish to change their behaviors.
Others have done it and their success can be emulated by following their paths. Some of the problem is habitual. Habits can be changed, but real effort is required to change habits which are so deeply ingrained, with deeply embedded emotional payoffs.
What Is Night Eating Syndrome, or NES?
A full 50% of all the children in Beijing are obese. Obesity is moving faster than a speeding bullet train in China, increasing even more rapidly than it is in the already overweight United States and similar, first world nations.
The World Health Organization (WHO) tells us that obesity has more than doubled since 1980, across the globe. Even previously healthy cities like Okinawa are showing weight-related health problems thanks to the adoption of the Standard American Diet (SAD) which includes little plant-based food, lots of processed food, and addictive, harmful chemicals.
From China to the UK to the United States and beyond, there were nearly 2 billion adults at a significant stage of overweight in 2014, with more than 600 million battling obesity.
In probably the most scary weight problem statistic that WHO has uncovered is the fact that more than 40 million children under the age of 5 were either overweight or obese in 2014.
What is really concerning about the statistics is that obesity is preventable. Lifestyle choices are just that… choices. We can learn to make better choices regarding nutrition, and if we take action our health will improve.
Simply being overweight, but not yet obese, raises your risk for developing heart disease, cancer and diabetes. When you move from overweight to obese, your risks dramatically increase further still.
Where do overweight and obesity problems come from?
Reduced Physical Activity
One of the problems is that we don’t move enough. Adults are figuratively chained to their offices and work cubicles, and many children would rather stare at a smart phone display or tablet screen than get outside and get moving.
When you get right down to it, it boils down to a simple equation. If you eat too many simple carbohydrates and consume more calories than your body can burn, you will begin to gain weight. In spite of your over-consumption, it is also very possible that your nutrition is inadequate and you are deficient in nutrients essential to good health.
One of the ways this happens is when poor dietary habits develop into an eating disorder. For physiological, psychological or emotional reasons, poor eating habits develop.
Anorexia nervosa, binge eating, purging and other unsafe eating practices can cause a laundry list of health problems.
According to the NationalEatingDisorders.org website, one “… feeding or eating disorder that causes significant distress or impairment, but does not meet the criteria for another feeding or eating disorder” is Night Eating Syndrome, or NES.
Unfortunately, this behavior is often misdiagnosed, or simply not accepted by many doctors and health professionals as its own, unique health problem.
Night Eating Disorder or Late Snack?
Let’s get started by attempting to explain what night eating syndrome is, an eating disorder that some experts believe effects as many as 1 or 2 in 10 people in improved, modern nations.
If you enjoy the occasional midnight snack, you may not be a full-blown NES sufferer. However, if you generally skip meals in the morning, especially at breakfast, overeat at night and wake up consistently during the night to eat, you could have a serious problem.
To be diagnosed with NES, you have to consume roughly 25% or more of your total caloric intake after dinner, and throughout the night.
Again, having another slice of that wonderful cake your grandmother baked right before going to bed, or waking up to eat it in the middle of a restless night, doesn’t necessarily mean there is a condition at work.
This has to be repeated behavior which is unlike the typical binges you see in a binge eating disorder that takes place in the daytime. You have to show a consistent pattern of getting out of bed in the middle of the night to eat food, and usually, large quantities of it.
A Hidden Problem
Medical professionals believe at least 6 million individuals in the United States may suffer from NES. Night eating syndrome often causes overweight and obesity, as you would imagine. Generally, the types of foods which are gorged upon are unhealthy, high-calorie, low-nutrition, high simple-carb foods that easily lead to weight gain.
Interrupting your sleep one or more times on a regular basis to consume large per-serving quantities of food means you often don’t enjoy all the healthy stages of sleep. This can cause you to be tired in the morning, and since your belly is still full upon rising, you usually are not hungry.
As the day progresses, you may find yourself not only skipping breakfast, but even lunch. By the time you get home at the end of a busy work day, you are ravenously hungry, since you’ve not giving your body the nutrition it needs.
The cycle begins to repeat itself, and you have several nighttime eating sessions before this unhealthy cycle starts over in the morning.
What Causes NES – Night Eating Syndrome?
Has anyone ever told you that eating at night is bad for you? There is a rumor that has been going around nutrition and health circles for decades that your metabolism is slower at night than it is during the day.
Our physiology is attuned to consuming most of our food during the day and early evening. However, while your metabolic rate does slow down a little in the evening, that is a minor part of the problem.
The major problem with night eating syndrome is the amount of food that is consumed. Coupled with whatever was eaten during the day, way too much nutrient-poor food is consumed. Study after study shows that people who eat late, especially those suffering from NES, eat much more than they should.
Stress and Eating Patterns
What causes this type of eating? There is little doubt that chronic stress is a major cause of setting up poor eating patterns and behaviors. Our survival system is wired to release stress hormones when we feel attacked or distressed.
Unfortunately our instinctive brain cannot make a distinction been physical, mental or emotional distress, it perceives anything that jangles our nerves as a danger, and releases hormones that activate our fight or flight responses.
In this day and age, with all the constant pressures of daily life, real or imagined (including those inspired by watching TV or even reading a newspaper) very few are immune from unnatural stress.
Rushed mornings, skipped breakfasts and unhealthy food on the run are normal days for many people. This is not only limited to paid workers and stressed managers, stay-at-home mothers are often stressed to their limits. When your only my-time is nighttime, it is all too easy to reach out for mind-numbing comforts like junk food and alcohol.
This is compounded when stress interferes with proper sleep patterns. What to do if you can’t sleep, except watch TV and eat?
Processed “Food” Quality
Our modern eating practices are also partially to blame. Most of the food at your disposal, up to 75% or as much as 80% of all the food at your local grocery store, is highly processed. Much of the natural nutrition has been removed.
Additives, addictive chemicals, artificial coloring, unhealthy levels of sugar and salt have been added to the food. By definition, much of the “food” you eat doesn’t really qualify as food.
When this type of food constitutes the major portion of your diet, your brain is constantly sending out hunger signals. Your brain has no other way of prompting you to obtain the nutrients it is lacking in other than eliciting hunger prompts.
It is telling you to get the nutrition it needs. Since processed food is highly addictive, intentionally manufactured to be so, you keep reaching for the wrong foods.
When you eat like this all the time, your stress levels are excessively high, physically and mentally. Inflammation appears, which leads to chronic disease, brain-based health issues and sleep problems.
Eating Reward Center Isn’t As Strong at Night
Common ingredients in processed food, such as salt and sugar, trigger your brain to release so-called “feel-good” hormones. It is this memory association that contributes to making you repeatedly crave processed junk food. Even if it isn’t good for you, it makes you feel good, for a little while at least.
In the case of night eating syndrome, researcher and BYU Professor Lance Davidson found something he didn’t expect when trying to discover why some people eat more at night. The positive hormones and chemicals your brain releases in response to eating foods like sugar and salt are released in smaller quantities at night.
Unfortunately, you get a watered-down feeling of happiness after eating those foods at night, as opposed to the daytime. Davidson and other researchers believe this is what causes some people to eat high quantities of bad food at nighttime, leading to NES.
It is akin to a drug addict continually having to take more and more of his or her drug of choice in order to get the same feeling or high.
Eating a double bacon cheeseburger and a large order of chili cheese fries dripped in ranch dressing does not give you near the sense of fulfillment at night, as it does during the daytime.
It is thought that this is because the human body is programmed to sleep in the middle of the night, and not eat, so your eating reward center doesn’t have all hands on deck.
Since NES sufferers are often eating in the middle of the night in a response to stress, this means they have to eat more of the unhealthy, comfort food than would usually trigger a pleasurable response in their brain.
Night Eating Syndrome Symptoms and Complications
While most with NES are overweight or obese due to the nature of this condition, some are not. And unlike most eating disorders, which are much more prevalent in women than men, both men and women are equal opportunity targets for NES.
Whether or not you have known in the past that this is a diagnosable condition, when you practice this type of behavior, you might find yourself anxious, stressed, frustrated, angry and embarrassed about what you are doing. These are common symptoms of night eating syndrome.
It is hard to believe that we are well into the 21st century, yet very little has been said or studied about this problem. Poor nutrition habits have increased since the 1970s (alongside unhealthy food manufacturing and distribution processes) to cause what the World Health Organization calls an “… epidemic of obesity and overweight” the likes of which has never been seen by humankind before.
While there has been little research in the past, this harmful condition is beginning to get more attention, like the important work that Professor Davidson and the BYU researchers are doing.
Stress is a Cause and a Symptom
While stress is often a contributing cause to night eating, this eating disorder usually adds to the chronic stress which is experienced daily. Since your REM sleep is disturbed or totally absent, and your nutrition is out of whack, your body sees this as a problem.
Your normal fight or flight stress response is triggered, high levels of cortisol and other stress-causing hormones are released and remain dangerously elevated, and “feel good” chemicals are nowhere to be found.
Overweight, obesity, physical and mental stress, short tempers, diabetes and other weight-related health problems can develop from NES, if these night eating behaviors continue.
In the resources that follow, you will see some highly recommended tools and material that can help you get back on a healthy eating and sleeping path. Stress management techniques such as yoga and meditation have been proven to help sufferers overcome eating disorders, including NES and many others.
Address the Stress
The midnight raids on the refrigerator often take place because a person is seeking to sooth stress with food. Bring down the stress, and you can reduce or even eliminate nighttime eating syndrome behaviors. Counseling sessions with a licensed nutritionist and/or psychiatrist has also proven successful for some.
Don’t let this condition lead to the diabetes and heart disease that an unnatural, unhealthy body weight can deliver. Aside from physical issues that develop from overweight and obesity, the emotional problems can be just as devastating.
Feeling that you have no control over your behavior, low levels of self-esteem and self-worth, taking your emotions out on the people you love, and hiding this problem by bingeing in the middle of the night are all signs of mental instability and poor emotional health connected to NES.
Sleep experts say you cannot “make up” sleep that you miss. The damage that comes from not sleeping for 6 to 8 hours continuously without waking up can’t be repaired by simply sleeping for 10 or 12 hours every 2 or 3 days.
Keeping a journal where you honestly log every bit of food that goes into your body can also help you not only spot unhealthy patterns, but formulate plans to prevent them. Don’t be half-hearted or think you can make up plans on the fly.
Relying only on willpower to battle temptation is very likely to fail. Plan a strategy at the time of day you are least affected by your triggers and temptations. Prepare action steps in advance to follow at your critical periods, and follow them strictly.
Do These Things Every Day
When you wake up in the morning, force yourself to eat breakfast, even if you feel like you aren’t that hungry. Do the same with a healthy lunch, and dinner in the evening. Exercise in the morning, because this practice leads to healthy sleep patterns.
Drink plenty of water throughout the day, not sodas and coffee and energy drinks. Have protein with every meal, and absolutely avoid simple carbs. The goal is to prevent energy fluctuations; this will flow through to all areas, including mood, stress levels and food cravings.
These steps will help break an unhealthy cycle, and retrain your brain and your body to eat and sleep on a normal schedule.
You need your sleep, in regular, unbroken amounts. You need proper nutrition. You need to feel good about who you are, and you deserve to enjoy looking at the person staring back at you from your mirror.
Seek Professional Help
If you believe that NES is adversely affecting you, contact your doctor, a counselor or nutritionist immediately. Don’t try to tackle this issue on your own, because unless you recognize the underlying feelings that are causing anxiety and stress to fuel your nighttime overeating binges, the behavior will likely continue, or possibly worsen.
Helpful NES Resources
One resource that kept popping up over and over during the writing of this report is “Overcoming Night Eating Syndrome: A Step-By-Step Guide to Breaking the Cycle” by Dr. Kelly C. Allison and Dr. Albert Stunkard.
Available in paperback or Kindle e-book formats from Amazon, the book thoroughly covers what is definitely an under-researched and not frequently talked about eating disorder which is becoming unfortunately more common every day.
The following websites and articles can present you with a more in-depth explanation of this problem, and help you move past this unnatural and unhealthy way of eating and sleeping.
Night Eating Syndrome, as a term, is now often replaced by, or re-classified as ‘Binge Eating Disorder’. This seems reasonable, as they are essentially the same condition, with related triggers, symptoms and outcomes. While there are certain aspects that apply more specifically to NES, grouping the disorders allows more resources to be more effectively applied to data collection and finding solutions.
Regardless of the name, one thing that is overwhelmingly common to sufferers is the feeling of powerlessness. Every time a person yields to compulsion they experience the same waves of emotional response.
The bottom line is, it can be done. It takes real effort to overcome Night Eating Syndrome, but is worth in terms of health and happiness.
You might also find this 2 part article about Food Addictions of interest