The glow of the refrigerator light beneath the darkness of night is like a moth to a flame. But, unfortunately, night eating is an actual situation for some, and its side effects may range from weight-loss stalls to weight gain, indigestion, and sleep disruptions.
If you peck throughout the day and overeat at night or eat and still binge at night, you may be dealing with Night Eating Syndrome (NES). And you can experience this eating disorder even if you are eating a low-carb, high-fat diet.
We get it; the frustrations of the day can culminate in a complete loss of inhibitions and diving headlong into a tray of keto treats you promised you would portion and eat responsibly.
Try to brush off the feelings of defeat and guilt that may try to take hold. Virtually everyone has experienced a moment of weakness and caved into their favorite confections, dressed in their PJs—ensuring not to make a sound and alert anyone of their late-night eating escapades.
There are lifestyle, mental, emotional, and medical reasons that could inspire your late-night trips to the pantry. Or your naughty noshing could be the product of lingering cravings and bad habits fighting to maintain a foothold as you remove overt sugars and carbs from your diet.
Regardless of the cause for your extra eating sessions under the pale moonlight: we will share some tips to help prevent these splurges from allowing you to focus on your macronutrient budget (e.g., carb, fat, protein, etc. intake) to hit your weekly goals.
What is Night Eating Syndrome?
Some people venture out to the fridge occasionally for an extra slice of cake during the week. But others struggle with eating at night more often, with those affected waking at night solely to eat.
Those with Night Eating Syndrome (NES) are characterized by a pattern of eating a significant amount (25% or greater) of their total calories during the evening and night hours.
Unlike snacking because you're up and have a desire for a savory or sweet treat, a hallmark of NES is frequent waking in the middle of the night to eat—it's more of a compulsion than a genuine desire for food or sustenance.
Plus, this syndrome is different from other similar eating conditions, because a person is aware that they are eating during these episodes of night noshing. However, despite knowing they're consuming a significant amount of their calories at night, they're compelled to do so in the face of the behavior compromising their efforts to create a caloric deficit for weight loss.
Plus, in addition to sabotaging your weight-related goals, NES can also contribute to sleep disruptions and insomnia, which can adversely affect mood and hormone health.
While night eating may appear to lack restraint or self-control, if one is genuinely experiencing NES, they face a medical condition that lives within the world of eating disorders but is not yet clearly specified with comprehensive diagnostic criteria.
What Causes NES?
No single element is responsible for the onset of Night Eating Syndrome, but several factors can contribute to its prevalence.
Many conditions, imbalances, and disorders are directly tied to stress's adverse effects, especially when we live in a fight-or-flight state chronically.
Plus, elevated stress levels cause the increased release of fat-storing hormones like cortisol that mainly affect visceral fat accumulation in the abdomen.
Besides being a strong predictor of future weight gain and overweight, the spikes of cortisol and disruptions with hunger-and-satiety-signaling hormones like ghrelin and stress can also contribute to increased food cravings and bouts with binging in an attempt to seek comfort through food—especially starchy, salty and fatty fare.
Those struggling with mood disorders like anxiety or depression often utilize environmental coping mechanisms like food to boost the body's feelings of happiness—providing a quick jolt to mood-boosting hormones like serotonin and dopamine.
It's easy to see how those coping with various mood disorders might self-medicate with indulgent comfort foods: instant gratification is virtually irresistible. Plus, the anonymity and naughty thrill of sneaking snacks in the middle of the night can also provide a dopamine supply that can become incredibly enticing, further promoting dietary compulsion.
Undereating or skipping meals throughout the day
Some miss meals due to a super-busy schedule and managing many tasks to the sacrifice of consistent mealtimes. In contrast, others may withhold food because of old thinking around the best approach to weight loss: thinking that eating less is better.
But eating enough and the highest quality ingredients is essential for optimal health and successful weight loss. Although it's necessary to create a caloric deficit to release body fat, an extreme restriction can trigger starvation mode and halt all weight loss at once.
A lower caloric intake throughout the day may deprive the body of adequate nutrition and the ample energy needed to fuel crucial system functions and processes required to maintain a wellness baseline, leading to overeating at night when the appetite is finally raging and harder to tame.
It's best to consume an adequate amount of food throughout the day once you've broken the fast, so as not to face ravenous hunger later in the day. Also, comprise your meals of healthy fats and proteins to ensure satiety all day and prevent late-night eating.
Occupational eating schedules
Most of us work during daytime waking hours, but those who truck across the country, staff hospitals, or work in other fields that require overnight shifts—their eating queues may skew toward eating late at night.
Those who regularly find themselves situationally set up to eat later in the day can prevent overdoing it by stoking their energy throughout the day with nutrient-dense portable meals, like keto trail mix or soups and smoothies kept to temperature in a regulated container.
This point is a doozy as it creates a vicious cycle. Sleep deprivation leads to generalized increased hunger and cravings, and the habit of night eating contributes to sleep disruptions and insomnia. So you can likely see how this pair combines to do possible damage to your diet.
Plus, our hunger-regulating hormones ghrelin and leptin are affected when you skimp on your sleep. So, while your body may ready your hunger and satiety signals well when properly rested, this delicate balance is sacrificed when you work, chill, or—of course—eat well into the evening.
Signs and Symptoms of Night Eating Syndrome
Those with Night Sleep Syndrome must meet a diagnostic threshold of criteria. In addition, the following must be present to diagnose NES according to the International Journal of Eating Disorders as follows:
- A pattern of considerably increased food intake in the evening and night hours, as evidenced by either:
At least 25% of one's daily food intake is consumed after the evening meal.
Waking up at least two nights per week to eat.
- An individual is entirely aware that they are eating in the evening or the middle of the night. Again, NES differs from another sleep disorder called Sleep-Related Eating Disorder that results in night eating where the person is unaware.
- The person can empathize with at least three of the following:
It may take extra diligence to determine the source of the matter. However, a lack of wanting to eat or absence of usual appetite in the morning for four or more mornings per week may indicate an issue.
An intense desire to eat between the last meal and bedtime or during the night may signal a dietary imbalance.
Insomnia, or having difficulty falling or staying asleep, at least four or more nights per week.
Feeling like it's necessary to eat to either fall asleep or return to sleep after waking at night.
Experiencing a frequent depressed mood or a mood that worsens in the evening.
Plus, in addition to a generally depressed mood, the person often feels or experiences:
- Significant stress or has an impaired level of functioning.
- The disordered eating habit has been present for at least three months.
- Disordered eating isn't related to substance abuse or dependence, a medical disorder, medication, or another underlying mental health disorder.
Plus, other signs of night eating disorder include:
- Eating secretly because of shame or guilt.
- Eating even when not feeling hungry.
- Eating beyond the point of comfortable fullness.
- Feeling like the person is out of control when it comes to their eating habits.
- Negative body image
How Does Night Eating Syndrome Affect Your Health?
People with NES tend to eat more calories and a more significant percentage of carbs and protein in their daily intake. And the starchier foods folks gravitate toward when binging in this manner can wreak havoc for anyone—especially someone following a low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diet.
Monitoring macros and ensuring the availability of healthier alternatives at all times, especially at night, will help mitigate the damage done by late-night grazing in your cupboards, pantry, and fridge.
Don't be fooled by the thought that nighttime calories don't count. The foods eaten in secret show up on the scale and in the way your clothes fit—in addition to how energized or not you feel each day.
Plus, one shouldn't take the sleep disruptions caused by NES lightly as poor sleep quality over a long period can lead to problematic conditions like type 2 diabetes.
Again, sleep deprivation can spike hunger hormones and cause reduced insulin levels while sleeping. When insulin levels lower, more sugar accumulates in the bloodstream, potentially leading to the development of diabetes.
Besides, when pooped, most do not think of hitting the gym for an intense calorie-scorching workout—more like hit the couch and chill. But, over time, diminished sleep can take a significant toll on your fitness regimen if you lack the steam to keep pace.
Honestly, we can not stress the importance of getting good quality sleep enough. Researchers have even found poor quality rest associated with higher LDL or “bad” cholesterol and lowering of HDL or “good” cholesterol.
Such an increase in high LDL cholesterol and low HDL cholesterol is concerning because it increases risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke.
Tips to Overcome Night Eating Syndrome
NES can cause physical, mental, and emotional distress to those suffering, but there is hope and ways to help overcome the issue. Here are five top tips for recalibrating your appetite and avoiding night eating:
Eat consistently throughout the day: Starving yourself all day and then hoping to maintain discipline and restraint in the evening and throughout the night is a recipe for disaster—save yourself the drama and fuel yourself steadily!
Practice sustainable eating habits: Serial dieters may be more prone to NES because they restrict calories and deprive themselves of food they love, or they feel guilty when eating around others.
Choose an eating approach that you think is more suitable as a lifestyle than a fad diet—like ketogenic low-carb protocol—and you increase your chances of sticking with it.
Stay hydrated: Drinking lots of fluids, ideally, water, can help increase feelings of satiety and reduce carb and sugar cravings throughout the day.
If you’re feeling the urge to snack and don’t physically feel hungry, try drinking a glass of water to lessen the desire to eat more than you need. Remember, thirst often masquerades as hunger.
Practice good sleep hygiene
Many of us are our own worst enemy for not practicing good sleep hygiene, leading to sleeping difficulties and possibly NES. To exercise the best practices to support deep and restful sleep, The National Sleep Foundation suggests:
- Restricting daytime naps to 30 minutes.
- Avoiding caffeine and nicotine near bedtime.
- Exercising during the day and avoiding high-intensity exercise close to bedtime.
- Establishing a relaxing sleep routine includes enjoying a warm bath, reading a book, or setting the mood with aromatherapy. Also, do your best to avoid emotionally upsetting conversations before bedtime.
- Creating a healthy sleep environment by reducing screens (e.g., TV, cellphone, etc.), setting a room temperature between 60-67 degrees, using white noise machines, or a blackout eye mask.
Choose the right bedtime snack
There are nights when genuine hunger hits, and a small snack will do the trick to ease you into a sweet slumber. And there's a bit of scientific evidence to suggest that eating dairy products, fruits, and vegetables may provide sleep-promoting effects.
Here are some low-carb snack options to consider that will aid in rather than disrupt restful sleep:
A half of a creamy and ripe avocado can curb those late-night munchies. This cornerstone keto fruit is decadent, fiber-rich, and provides some muscle-building protein as well.
Plus, this savory pod contains B vitamins, which are known to support restful sleep! Finally, mash the avocado into delightful guacamole or add atop a slice of satisfying avocado keto toast, as it's sure to banish the desire to overeat.
Plain, whole milk Greek yogurt contains more protein and fat than regular yogurt—one reason it’s so popular on keto. Plus, sugar-free, Greek yogurt is also a good source of potassium, calcium, and magnesium—minerals linked with better sleep.
Asiago, Cheddar, Camembert, and Gruyere are examples of aged cheeses suggested before bedtime. Not only is aged cheese low in milk sugar, but it’s high in calcium, as well.
One slice of cheddar, for example, provides almost 200 mg of this sleep-promoting nutrient also known to fortify bones and teeth. Plus, aged cheeses contain high concentrations of tryptophan—an amino acid that’s a precursor to melatonin, a prolific sleep hormone.
Many nuts make a hearty and convenient keto snack before bedtime. But almonds are unique because they also contain phyto-melatonin—a plant-based form of melatonin that may help promote sleep.
Buttered Keto Bread
Bread is still in play on a low-carb diet, and the options at our disposal today are vast. A classic slice of low-carb bread topped with a hefty pat of grass-fed butter is an easy-to-prepare option that can help you sleep better by increasing butyrate levels in your gut and your brain.
Plus, butter is naturally abundant in butyrate. And, keto bread generally contains lots of fiber to boost butyrate production in the gut—win-win!
Peanut butter and celery
A perfect keto snack is two tablespoons of peanut butter with a celery stick that provides loads of protein, fiber, and fat. The calorie count of this quick keto snack is a bit higher than with other ones noted, but that may prove helpful if you’re starving.
Eggs are a premium source of protein that can curb midnight hunger. One hard-boiled egg has more than 6g of this crucial nutrient and is a source of the amino acid tryptophan mentioned earlier.
Unsweetened coconut milk is a creamy and indulgent ingredient to use in recipes on keto to combat late-night hunger. This milk's fat content is satiating, with a hint of sweetness, and it helps you feel full faster.
And with around three fluid ounces of coconut milk providing 15g of fat along with about 3g of protein, it’s the perfect base for smoothies, soups, or sauces on a low-carb, high-fat diet.
Chocolate is a source of caffeine in trace amounts that shouldn't affect sleep. Plus, cocoa contains tryptophan and serotonin, which are both critical for restful sleep.
Choose sugar-free and at least 70% dark chocolate, and you’ll surely curb any sweet-tooth cravings and stay in ketosis.
When Should I See a Doctor?
Sneaking extra snacks at night is a common occurrence for many dieters without NES, but you may want to consult your physician if you notice you’ve been struggling with the symptoms of the syndrome for a while, and the tips above haven’t helped.
Also, it's essential to speak with a professional if it’s negatively impacting your physical or emotional health.
Your primary doctor may make a referral to a mental health counselor for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or prescribe an antidepressant or other combinations of treatments.
The good news is that the condition is treatable, and things can get better with the needed support and coping skills.
Night eating syndrome (NES) is not a lack of willpower; it's considered an eating disorder that may negatively affect health over time due to disrupted sleeping patterns and other related maladaptive behaviors.
An official NES diagnosis must meet specific criteria. Still, some signs and symptoms include consuming a large majority of total daily calories after the last typical meal of the day and frequently waking up in the middle of the night to eat.
Although, some possible causes of NES include restrictive eating, stress, and other underlying psychological conditions. It's possible to support better dietary hygiene with reprogramming and proper support.
While NES can be self-treated, medical interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy, diet, or antidepressants may also be helpful tools to help you eat, sleep, and feel your best.
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