Nighttime Eating & Night Eating Syndrome

Night view

Contributor: Timberline Knolls Staff at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

Night eating syndrome (NES) is a rare but harmful condition that was first recognized in the 1950s. An estimated 1.5% of the population struggles with night eating syndrome. However, the actual number may be much higher, as the condition is not widely known [1].

Night eating syndrome is defined by high food intake in the evenings and early morning hours, but it’s more than just eating a snack before bed. Those who suffer from night eating syndrome might consume as much as 56% of their daily food intake between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. [2]. This can lead to health concerns like severe obesity, diabetes, and heart disease if left untreated.

Understanding Night Eating Syndrome

Night eating syndrome is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) as an other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED). A person must consume at least 25% of their daily food intake after their evening meal, waking up at least twice per week to eat during the night, to be diagnosed with night eating syndrome [3].

Someone who is suffering from night eating syndrome might also experience morning anorexia, with little appetite in the morning and early in the day and a strong urge to eat between dinner and bedtime. Those who have night eating syndrome may also suffer from insomnia and have difficulty staying asleep. They might feel like eating during the night is the only way to fall back asleep.

Night Eating vs. Other Eating Disorders

Night eating syndrome is often confused with sleep-related eating disorder (SRED). However, with SRED, the person who is consuming food during the night has awareness of what they’re doing. Someone who suffers from NES is fully aware and can recall episodes of nocturnal eating, but they are unable to control their behavior.

Night eating syndrome is also different from binge-eating disorder. While night eating syndrome might include evening bingeing, some who have the condition graze throughout the evening and night. Binge-eating disorder can occur at any time of day, while night eating syndrome is worsened by the evening and nighttime.

People who have night eating syndrome can have another eating disorder at the same time. Studies show that approximately 7% to 25% of people who have night eating syndrome also have binge-eating disorder. Research also shows that 50% of outpatients and 40% of inpatients being treated for bulimia nervosa also report symptoms of NES [2].

Causes of Night Eating Syndrome

The exact causes of night eating syndrome are unknown. However, those who have NES often suffer from a co-occurring condition such as depression, a substance use disorder, or other eating disorders.

One theory suggests that an alteration or disruption in the hormones that help the body regulate sleep, mood, and appetite triggers night eating syndrome. Others believe that nighttime eating is used as a coping mechanism, which can lead to a long-term habit.

Those who are awake at later hours, such as college students, may be at a higher risk for developing night eating syndrome. Several night eating syndrome studies have been conducted on college students, one showing that 4.2% met the criteria for the illness. Of those who met NES criteria, 14% also appeared to be binge eaters [3].

In the same study, a history of depression and self-harm was more common among those who had night eating syndrome when compared with those who did not have the disorder [3]. This suggests a possible link between mental health conditions and the development of the disease.

Signs of Someone Who Is Struggling with Night Eating Syndrome 

Night eating syndrome is not widely known or understood. It is important to be able to recognize when you or someone you know may be struggling. Those who have night eating syndrome may be overweight or obese, but they can also be within the normal weight range and still suffering.

Those who have night eating syndrome may display the following symptoms:

  • A lack of control of their evening food intake
  • Eating in secret and even when not hungry
  • Feelings of shame or regret over their eating behavior
  • Depression that might worsen at night
  • Insomnia or other sleep disorders
  • Negative self-image

Night eating syndrome can lead to serious health risks, so it is important to get treatment right away. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder like night eating syndrome, help is available.

Night Stars


References:

[1] Borresen, K. (2021, March 25). Read this if you wake up hungry in the middle of the night. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/wake-up-hungry-middle-of-night_l_605a26bdc5b66a80f4eb7434

[2] Allison, K. C., & Tarves, E. P. (2011). Treatment of night eating syndrome. Psychiatric Clinics of North America34(4), 785–796. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psc.2011.08.002

[3] Glatter, R. (2014, February 24). Night eating syndrome: A warning sign? Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertglatter/2014/02/24/night-eating-syndrome-a-warning-sign/?sh=3a04ccb75133


About The Sponsor

Timberline Knolls BannerAt Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, located outside of Chicago, Illinois, we provide specialty care for women and girls who are living with eating disorders. Our private facility offers female-only treatment programs for eating disorders, addiction, and a range of mental health conditions. We work closely with each person to develop treatment goals to maximize strengths while focusing on individual needs. Our treatment team understands that each woman has unique needs and that she must play a role in her journey to wellness.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on May 3, 2021. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on May 3, 2021 by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC