Night eating syndrome is an eating disorder, characterized by a delayed circadian pattern of food intake.
Night eating syndrome is not the same as binge eating disorder, although individuals with night eating syndrome are often binge eaters. It differs from binge eating in that the amount of food consumed in the evening/night is not necessarily objectively large nor is a loss of control over food intake required. It was originally described by Dr. Albert Stunkard in 1955 and is currently included in the “Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder” category of the DSM-5.
Individuals with night eating syndrome feel like they have no control over their eating patterns, and often feel shame and guilt over their condition.
Night eating syndrome affects an estimated 1.5% of the population, and is equally common in men and women, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Medical Impact of Night Eating Syndrome
Individuals with night eating syndrome are often obese or overweight, which makes them susceptible to health problems caused by being overweight, including high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. Those who are obese increase their risk of heart diseases, many types of cancer and gallbladder disease.
Individuals with night eating syndrome often have a history of substance abuse, and may also suffer from depression. They typically report being more depressed at night. They also frequently have sleep disorders.
Signs of Night Eating Syndrome
Those with night eating syndrome may be overweight or obese. They feel like they have no control over their eating behavior, and eat in secret and when they are not hungry. They also feel shame and remorse over their behavior.
They may hide food out of shame or embarrassment. Those with night eating syndrome typically eat rapidly, eat more than most people would in a similar time period and feel a loss of control over their eating. They eat even when they are not hungry and continue eating even when they are uncomfortably full. Feeling embarrassed by the amount they eat, they typically eat alone to minimize their embarrassment. They often feel guilt, depression, disgust, distress or a combination of these symptoms.
Those with night-eating syndrome eat a majority of their food during the evening. They eat little or nothing in the morning, and wake up during the night and typically fill up on high-calorie snacks.
Traits of patients with night-eating syndrome may include being overweight, frequent failed attempts at dieting, depression or anxiety, substance abuse, concern about weight and shape, perfectionism and a negative self-image.
Causes of Night Eating Syndrome
Causes of night eating syndrome vary, but there are usually a variety of contributing factors. Sometimes college students pick up the habit of eating at night and are unable to break the habit when they become working adults. High achievers sometimes work through lunches, and then overcompensate by eating more at night.
Night eating syndrome, ironically, may be a response to dieting. When people restrict their intake of calories during the day, the body signals the brain that it needs food and the individual typically overcompensates at night. Night eating may also be a response to stress.
Those with night eating syndrome are often high achievers, but eating patterns can affect their ability to socialize or manage work-related responsibilities. They may also have different hormonal patterns, resulting in their hunger being inverted so that they eat when they should not and do not eat when they should.
Treating Night Eating Syndrome
As with other eating disorders, successful treatment of night eating syndrome typically requires a combination of therapies.
Treatment for night eating syndrome typically begins with educating patients about their condition, so they are more aware of their eating patterns and can begin to identify triggers that influence how they eat. Just identifying that they have night eating syndrome and that it is not their fault can be an important first step toward recovery.
Treatment of night eating syndrome also includes nutrition assessment and therapy, exercise physiology, and an integration of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), interpersonal therapy (IT) and stress management. An additional online component may also help patients gain control over their disorders.
It is important for individuals with night eating syndrome to change their behavior by changing their beliefs. If they believe that they are powerless to change the way they eat, they will not be able to change.
Helping Someone With Night Eating Syndrome
If you suspect you or someone you know has Night Eating Syndrome (NES), do something about it. Night Eating Syndrome can have a dramatic impact on a person. Seek professional counseling immediately.