Stepping towards the kitchen at the end of the night may start as a simple habit; I mean you just want to have that midnight snack! However, when this recurs more often, it starts to spell a nightmare - the Night Eating Syndrome (NES). By far the most frequent of eating disorders, NES has been a thrilling subject of many current studies and although it can affect all ages and both genders, NES is more common among young women.
There are no specific guidelines that characterize NES especially that it is not considered an “official” eating disorder by the medical community; however, if night eating trips recur often for 2 months or more, Night Eating Syndrome could be it! There are, however, some NES characteristics:
- Little or no appetite for breakfast: Night-eaters often lack the desire to eat until lunch time and can often go several hours after waking before their first meal
- Eat more than 25% of the required total daily calories after 7 pm or dinner in general
- Frequent night time awakenings to eat: Feeling the urge to wake up at least once a night and not being able to go back to sleep unless you grab that midnight snack!
- Having a greater caloric intake than others: Therefore, night eaters tend to be overweight. Binging on carbs, cereals and sugary foods can be more of a preference because these food types can trigger the brain to produce neurochemicals that decrease stress, anxiety and mood swings.
- Spreading eating over several hours at night rather than just one typical eating binge like in other eating disorders. Night eaters tend to have separate "trips" into the fridge throughout the night - not just one large binge!
So what are the causes of NES?
Night Eating Syndrome can be caused by different factors, including hormone imbalances, excessive stress and eating and mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, self-starvation and food addiction.
- Hormonal changes related to sleep, hunger, sadness and stress causing a decrease in melatonin, serotonin, leptin and increase in cortisol! All fancy names that disrupt hunger and satiety signals and that alter normal sleep/wake cycles. This tempts night eaters to get up and get that food they're craving for!
- Heredity causes could also be a factor contributing to NES, but there's not fine proof yet!
- Stressful lifestyles at work or at home can cause a person to turn to night eating in order to cope with such stress. You are most likely not peaking to grab a tomato, you're looking for something sweet, fatty and/or salty to give you a good taste of life.
- Strict, unbalanced dieting throughout the day + not having a healthy eating schedule can lead a person to overeat at night to compensate the lack of energy intake. So yes, having breakfast as well as regular meals spread smartly throughout your day can definitely help.
OK, so we got what NES is all about! Now what to do?
>> The first step in treating Night Eating Syndrome is to consult a physician to get a proper diagnosis. Once you are properly diagnosed, your physician can determine what is causing this huge urge for night munching and can develop an appropriate strategy for managing your eating and sleeping habits.
>> A dietitian can also help night eaters develop a winning strategy tailored specifically for your needs to gradually start eating breakfast and consuming all your daily calories before bedtime, of course gradually changing your habits.
>> On the other hand, a psychologist can help you manage stress as well. Common treatments for NES are all dependent on the cause leading to night eating. Therefore treating could be through hormonal supplements, medications, psychotherapy, behavioral therapy and nutritional counseling to help you establish and maintain a healthier relationship with food.