“People want to know, ‘How do I stop binge eating at night?'” observes Dr. Arvon, who’s been counseling guests at Pritikin on issues related to emotional eating since 2008. “There’s a lot of head-scratching and guilt over what happens in the evening hours, a lot of ‘Where did my will power go?'”
There’s a lot of science on the subject, too. As early as 1955, a University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist named Albert Stunkard first described a behavior called nighttime eating syndrome.1 In more recent years, notably a 1999 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association,2 scientists found that night eaters consumed more than 50% of their daily calories between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m, while a control group ate only 15% of their daily calories during those hours.
But as yet, unfortunately, there are no solid solutions.
Causes are also tough to pin down. Some studies point to stress; others, depression; still others, hormonal imbalances.
Nighttime eating syndrome is often linked with being overweight or obese, but some normal-weight people also struggle to curb nighttime eating.
Do you have nighttime eating syndrome?
If you answer “yes” to all or most of the following questions, you may, and it’s important to talk to your Pritikin or home doctor for support.
- Do you overeat in the evening, especially after dinner?
- Do you eat at night even though you’re not hungry?
- Do you wake up during the night and eat, usually after a trip to the bathroom?
- Do you have no appetite in the morning?
- Do you often have feelings of sadness, stress, anxiety, or depression, and do these feelings tend to increase at night?
Scientists often distinguish between nighttime eating syndrome and binge eating. While both may be triggered by similar issues, night eaters tend to nosh, eating no more than 400 calories at a time. Binge eaters may consume an unusually large amount of food, between 2,000 and 3,000 calories, in one sitting, and usually quit after that.
What to do
To stop binge eating at night or nighttime noshing, researchers have begun to study psychological-based treatments and have found that cognitive behavioral therapy has benefits.
Taught at the Pritikin Longevity Center, cognitive behavioral therapy involves restructuring our thoughts, that is, changing the stories we tell ourselves so that negative thinking (such as “I’m stuck with this behavior and I’ll be fat the rest of my life”) is no longer in charge. Instead, attitudes are set in place that are positive and productive, and propel us forward.
In one pilot study,3 major improvements occurred among men and women involved in a 10-session cognitive behavior therapy program, including significant decreases in calorie intake after dinner, number of late-night ingestions (from 9 to 3 per week), and body weight. Within the 10-week period, average weight loss was 7 pounds. “Depressed mood and quality of life also improved significantly,” the authors wrote.
5 strategies for curbing nighttime eating
Below are 5 key skills, both behavioral and physiological, taught by Dr. Coral Arvon and the physicians and dietitians at Pritikin. They’ve helped our guests at Pritikin break their nighttime eating habits, shed weight, and live lives that are not only healthier, they’re happier.1
Don’t starve yourself during the day.
Let’s revisit the words that began this article, the webinar attendee who said she’d been “really good” all day long. What exactly does that mean? Unfortunately for many people, “really good” means they skimped on food or skipped meals during the day. They’re often trying to “save up” their calories knowing they tend to go overboard at night.
“But it’s one of the worse things we can do,” points out Dr. Arvon. “Depriving ourselves of food leaves us with nagging feelings of hunger, especially in the late afternoon on. We aren’t getting enough food, so we never get food out of our minds. Is it any surprise, then, that we go whole hog at night? We’re tired, we’re hungry, and finally… FINALLY… we’re going to reward ourselves!”
That’s why it’s so important to listen to our hunger cues, as the recent Pritikin newsletter article The Hunger Scale discussed. When we’re hungry, we need to eat, and eat till we’re satisfied. Only then can we get past obsessions over food, and get back to our lives.
Come evening, “you’ll still enjoy your food,” says Dr. Arvon, “but you won’t feel you’ve been pining away for it all day long, when means that when you do eat, it will have less power over you.”
And sure, it’s no easy task to change eating habits. The fact is, “our bodies become accustomed to overeating at night and having no appetite in the morning,” notes Pritikin’s Director of Nutrition Kimberly Gomer. “Sometimes it takes a major intervention, like coming to the Pritikin Longevity Center, to break these habits so that our bodies can break through to new lives.”
“Mornings at Pritikin are something to see,” smiles Dr. Arvon. “People who used to wake up fatigued and bloated from last night’s binges are now sailing into our breakfast buffet charged with energy, ready to exercise, hungry, and filling their plates with our delicious hot cereals and fresh fruit. They’re amazed at how good they feel, that they could in fact feel this good again.”2
Don’t starve yourself at night.
You’ve likely heard people say (or you’ve told yourself): “I’m not going to eat anything after 6 p.m. because everything I eat after that turns to fat.”
But the notion that nighttime eating is more fattening than daytime eating, or that our metabolism slows down at night, is not based on good science.
What science does suggest is that night eaters simply eat more calories overall for the day, and that’s what contributes to weight gain.
In one study,4 for example, scientists at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Phoenix placed 160 people in a research lab for three days and gave them unlimited access to food after dinner.
About one-third of the subjects were late-night eaters. The scientists found that these night eaters burned the same number of calories as those not eating late at night, but the night eaters had eaten more food, about 300 more calories more, each day.
And sure enough, those extra 300 calories daily took their toll. In follow-up studies three years later, the night eaters had gained an average of 14 pounds. Those who did not eat late at night had gained only 4 pounds.
Bottom line:”If you are hungry at night, eat. Don’t feel guilty about it. Don’t think food eaten at night puts on more weight than the same food eaten earlier in the day,” encourages Pritikin’s Director of Nutrition Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD. “Enjoy a healthy, filling snack like a cup of fat-free Greek nonfat yogurt topped with fresh strawberries.”
As discussed in our Hunger Scale article, focus not on the time of day but on how you feel. Stay in tune with your hunger and satiety cues. “Just make sure to stop eating when you’re lightly satisfied. Don’t keep eating till you’re stuffed,” says Kimberly.3
A lot of us have gotten into the habit of eating while watching TV or playing on iPads or laptops at night. If you can’t imagine screen time without snacks, try cutting down on your screen activity, or cutting it out altogether. Or limit your screen eating to fruits, vegetables, and no-calorie drinks.
Another tip: Occupy your hands in other ways. While watching TV, shoot nerf ball hoops, floss your teeth, take up knitting, or write notes to friends. Better yet, stretch on the floor, walk on a treadmill, or ride a stationary bike.
Maybe most importantly, don’t have anything in the fridge or pantry that can get you into trouble. If your favorite calorie-dense snacks are nearby, they’ll be calling out to you, you just know it. Remove the junk, and you’ll remove the incessant, will-power-sapping temptation.4
Ask yourself, “Why am I eating?”
Many of us have a nice satisfying dinner every night, but then, ah geez, we want more. We’re not hungry, but we’re in the kitchen sniffing around, ferreting out goodies.
Advises Dr. Arvon: “It’s really important to ask yourself, ‘Why?’ What’s eating away at you that’s causing you to eat?”
As discussed earlier, some research has linked nighttime eating with depression. Do seek counseling if you think you’re struggling with this potentially deadly disorder. Each year, reports the Centers for Disease Control,5 about 10% of Americans are afflicted with depression.
“But for many of us,” points out Dr. Arvon, “overeating at night is simply a crummy, deeply ingrained habit fueled by less serious but still insidious feelings like frustrations over the day, loneliness, anxiousness, or boredom.”
When you feel the urge to splurge, build in a 5- to 10-minute pause. You may even want to slap a big “STOP” sign on your refrigerator. Then ask yourself:
- What am I really hungry for?
- What do I need?
Satisfy yourself with self-knowledge instead of food, and act on it.
If, for example, you find that you’re anxious, begin a new habit. Right after dinner every night, steal away for a relaxation technique like meditation. Or sign up for evening yoga classes. Sometimes, just walking out the door for a brisk 15-minute walk can save you from a 500-calorie binge.
If you feel an intense need to reward yourself at night, especially after a frustrating day, do reward yourself, but with non-food pleasures. Make a list of all the activities you enjoy. Maybe it includes shopping, listening to music, taking a nice long bath, getting a manicure or massage, going to the movies, going out dancing, playing a sport like golf or pick-up basketball, rekindling your romantic life, or simply going out for a drink with a best friend. Whenever you can, reserve nighttime for these pleasures.
And certainly, one more pleasure will be waking up each morning free of the self-loathing and guilt that often accompanies nighttime overeating.5
Create a future mind-set.
Do your best to replace immediate pleasures (like gulping down a bag of M and M’s) with long-term ones. Keep reminding yourself of why you’re avoiding those M and M’s.
Plant your mind in the future. Daily, hourly, imagine doing all the things you want to do, and for years to come. Do you want to hike in the Sierra? Dance at your grandchildren’s weddings? Play golf till you’re 95?
Make your own internal short film of best-life moments to come, and play it constantly. Hear your loved ones’ laughter. Sway to your favorite music. Breathe in that mountain air. Dive into the ocean. Nuzzle the new babies in your life.
These positive imaginings can create a real mood boost, a gratefulness for all the people and events in your life that are truly important to you, and the strength to power through unhealthy temptations. The temptations will fizzle, and you’ll feel even better for short-circuiting them.
Set up near-future goals, too. Invited to a big bash a month or two from now? Imagine what you’re going to wear, and how well you’re going to look and feel. Every time you’re about to reach for sweets or chips, time-travel to that night.
“When we replace negative, defeatist thoughts with positive, masterful ones, we really can stop binge eating at night. We can ‘break the back of the beast’ and transform our lives,” encourages Dr. Arvon.
“Do remember that change takes time and awareness. You already have the awareness, so you’re well on the road to solving this very common challenge.”
The American Journal of Medicine, 1955; 19: 78.
JAMA, 1999; 282 (7): 657.
American Journal of Psychotherapy, 2010; 64 (1): 91.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2008; 88 (4): 900.