Night Eating Syndrome: Bad Habit or Eating Disorder?

Contributor: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC, President at Eating Disorder Hope

kitchen-670247_640A snack before bed can be a nice treat, a comforting ritual or an obsessive-compulsive pattern of overeating that wreaks havoc on the health and welfare of the Night Eating Syndrome sufferer.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 1.5 % of US citizens struggle with Night Eating Syndrome1. It is estimated that between 9-15% of individuals who seek treatment for obesity have Night Eating Syndrome2.

Some of the signs and symptoms include:

  • Eating the majority of your calories at night
  • Waking up in the middle of the night, sometimes multiple times, to eat
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • History of depression
  • History of substance abuse
  • Feel out of control of eating
  • Feel shame about their eating

Read more about the symptoms, causes, and health risks of night eating syndrome

Julie’s Experience with Night Eating Syndrome

To exemplify what night eating syndrome is, consider the case of Julie, a former client of mine. Her night eating syndrome resulted in her becoming significantly overweight and she was very unhappy and depressed.

The Cycle

liver-cheese-617200_640Julie’s cycle would proceed as follows: skip breakfast, diet during the day, then as evening approached the battle with her hunger would begin. She would resolve to only eat her low calorie, pre-planned dinner, but it would not fully satisfy her hunger or her need to feel satiated.

Julie could successfully diet for a few weeks and then a crack in her iron will commitment would occur, and she would wake up around 2 or 3 am, ravenous, and fill up on cereal, pizza, pasta, cookies, etc.

The Morning After

Julie would then feel stuffed, comforted and fall back asleep. In the morning, she would awaken feeling bloated, thirsty and discouraged about her ability to maintain her commitment to her diet.

Julie would weigh herself and then chastise herself for failing to lose weight and then resolve to do better this time and the cycle would begin again.

Treatment for Night Eating Syndrom

Treatment with a qualified eating disorder professional for night eating Syndrome may include:

  • Counseling
  • Sleep disturbance assessment
  • Increased exercise
  • Food journals
  • Recording bedtimes, awakening times and eating times
  • Medication

How Julie Used Treatment to Help

bed-625386_640In Julie’s case, she met with a therapist (me) and also a nutritionist weekly. Julie began working out at her gym in the morning, before work, three times a week. She also kept a journal where she recorded her nightly sleep/awaken times, food intake, exercise and moods. We reviewed this regularly in her sessions, noting patterns and routines.

Julie concluded that her anxiety about work, family and overall life led her to seek comfort in food. She began to explore other ways to nurture herself, such as:

  • Attending funny or uplifting movies
  • Spending more time with friends and family
  • Taking more walks with her dog
  • Knitting

Becoming Interesting in Healthy Activities

Julie gave up the dieting and she became interested in nutrition and cooking and became quite a gourmet cook experimenting with spices and varying food textures to create the healthiest, satisfying and delicious meals she could prepare for herself.

She began to better identify her hunger and fullness cues and was often able to stop eating when she felt satisfied.

Coping During the Night

Uncertain. Girl in white and arrows.Over a period of about 18 months, Julie slowly changed her night eating habits and began to sleep through the night more frequently. When she would awaken, she would read or rock in a comfortable chair in her room to lull herself back to sleep rather than roaming into the kitchen for a snack.

She had ups and downs, as most do, but eventually, it was rare that Julie would turn to night eating any longer, as she had developed tools to address her physical and emotional needs that better satisfied her.

Reaching Out to a Specialist

If you struggle with Night Eating Syndrome, reach out to an eating disorder professional and discuss your behavior and health consequences. Though it takes patience and commitment to resolve this pattern of behavior, it is possible, and the healthier life, that you deserve, awaits you.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

How have you improved your sleep patterns in recovery from Night Eating Syndrome?


  1. Kim O’Brien Root and Kelli Miller, WebMD Feature. (n.d.). Is It Binge Eating Disorder or Night Eating Syndrome? Retrieved March 7, 2015, from
  2. Gluck, M., Geleibter, A., & Satov, T. (2001, April 1). Night eating syndrome is associated with depression, low self-esteem, reduced daytime hunger, and less weight loss in obese outpatients. Retrieved March 7, 2015, from
  3. Howell, MD, M., Schenck, MD, C., & Crow, MD, S. (2007). Curbing nocturnal binges in sleep-related eating disorder. Current Psychiatry, 6(7).
  4. Allison, K., & Stunkard, A. (2004). Overcoming night eating syndrome: A step-by-step guide to breaking the cycle. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 13th, 2015
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