Binge Eating Disorder

Why you binge at night and how to stop late night cravings

November 28, 2023

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Medically reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

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Contents
Contents

Key Points

  • Binge eating is eating large amounts of food in a short period of time rapidly, often experiencing a loss of control over the food intake.
  • You could be binge eating at night because of your diet, medication, emotional eating, stress, inadequate sleep, binge eating disorder, night eating syndrome, or more.
  • Ways to stop your late-night cravings include planning your meals during the day, creating other ways to relax at night, and addressing sleep, mental health, or physical health issues that may make you binge.
  • Binge eating often brings guilt and shame over not being able to stop. It’s tough to overcome it alone; consider a Registered Dietitian for support.

Catch yourself raiding the pantry or fridge at night, even if you’re not hungry?

Eat too many snacks when you unwind after dinner and can’t seem to stop?

Late-night cravings may lead to full-fledged binges that derail your health goals, leaving you feeling guilty, shameful, and frustrated.

While binge eating is not your fault, it is your challenge to deal with. Regular binges at night can be harmful to your physical and mental health. 

So, let’s explore why you overeat, the impact of your binges, and how to curb your cravings at night.

What is binge eating?

Binge eating is a form of disordered eating where a person:

  • Eats excessive amounts of food rapidly
  • Often feel a loss of control over their eating
  • Eats to the point of discomfort or pain
  • Eats even when they are not hungry and
  • May overeat alone out of embarrassment or fear of judgment from others.

After a binge, it is common for people to feel disgusted, embarrassed, ashamed, and very guilty.

Experienced Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Rita Faycurry RD says, “Binge eating disorder is a complex condition which can be triggered by hormonal imbalances, gut issues, and other factors.” 

She adds, “It is often used as a coping tool for stress, boredom, anxiety, or depression, and it is also influenced by certain medications. A holistic mind-body approach is needed to get to the root of why a person binge eats.”

Why do you binge eat at night?

There are many reasons why you get the urge to binge at night, including:

Restrictive dieting during the day

Eating too little during the day or not getting the proper nutrition may trigger intense hunger at night, leading you to overeat.

Consider this: your body’s primary goal is to keep your heart, lungs, and other vital organs functioning properly. However, when you do not get the nutrition you need during the day, your brain dials up your hunger signals until it gets the fuel (food) it needs.

Medications may trigger binge eating

Certain medications can suppress your appetite during the day, but your hunger may return with a vengeance at night, leading to binge eating at night.

Medications that are well-known appetite suppressants include types of antidepressants, antipsychotics, and corticosteroids. Some ADHD medications also reduce your appetite.

Other common appetite suppressants include:

  • Coffee
  • Green tea
  • Flaxseeds
  • Water
  • Tobacco
  • Weight loss drugs like Ozempic, Wegovy, or Mounjaro.

When the effect of the medication or appetite suppressant eventually wears off, you may wake up feeling extremely hungry.

Emotional eating

Emotional eating is also known as stress eating and emotional overeating. It is the act of ingesting food in response to negative and positive emotions.

Reasons why you may indulge in emotional eating include:

  • To help you deal with negative emotions: If you frequently find yourself caught in the cycle of binge eating at night, you may be using food to cope with emotions for temporary comfort. 
    According to Faycurry RD, “Emotional eating can become an unconscious habit, triggered by feelings such as stress, boredom, fear, anger or anxiety. Even if your current binge eating episodes seem to be on auto-pilot now, they may have originated from past experiences tied to negative emotions.”
  • Using food as a reward: Using food as comfort due to childhood habits can lead to frequent binge eating, especially foods high in calories but low in nutrients. 
    While occasionally indulging in some Cheetos or a few Oreos is okay, the real issue arises when you regularly consume large quantities and struggle to stop. This could be a sign of a binge eating disorder.

You’re tired and need to sleep

Depending on your activities during the day and energy levels, you may just be tired at the end of the night and need some shut-eye.

However, what if you force yourself to stay up to binge watch your favorite show or stretch the evening out to procrastinate your daily grind the next day? This is also known as revenge bedtime procrastination, and your body may crave ultra-processed foods or sugary foods to keep you awake.

Hormonal imbalances may disrupt hunger cues

  • Leptin and Ghrelin: the hunger hormones: Leptin and ghrelin are hormones that regulate hunger and fullness cues in our body. Ghrelin, produced in the gut, signals the brain to eat, while leptin, produced in fat cells, indicates when we're satisfied. 
    Hormonal imbalances can cause intense food cravings even when full. For example, a common issue in people with obesity is high leptin levels with leptin resistance, leading to constant hunger.
  • Insulin resistance: Insulin is a hormone that regulates your blood sugar. However, an imbalance or insulin resistance can cause frequent hunger, leading you to overeat.
  • Cortisol, the stress hormone: High cortisol levels, the body’s primary stress hormone, can lead to late night cravings. Do you find yourself craving ‘comfort’ foods right after a day of stressful meetings, social interactions, or tough workouts? 
    Chances are, cortisol levels are high, which stimulates hunger cravings. While this is a short-term stress response, long-term effects may harm your health.

Not getting enough fiber and protein

If your diet does not contain enough whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and protein during the day, this could be a reason for your late night binges. Protein and fiber help us feel full.

Dietary fiber slows digestion, and protein helps release the fullness hormone. If you skip protein and fiber-rich foods for breakfast and lunch, you may battle hunger pangs at night.

You don’t have to manage cravings to binge at night alone. Fay can help you find a Registered Dietitian near you, covered by your insurance.

You may have night eating syndrome (NES)

Night Eating Syndrome (NES) is an eating disorder where a person consumes excess amounts of food in the late evening and night.

You may have NES if you:

  • Get 25% or more of your daily calories after dinner or late at night
  • Have little to no appetite in the morning but eat a lot of food after dinner or when you wake up at night
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Do not eat large quantities of food at night but may eat at multiple intervals.

What is the impact of overeating at night?

Binge eating can result in consuming more calories than needed, leading to weight gain and potentially other health issues like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. It may increase feelings of shame, guilt, loneliness, and lower self-esteem.

It also disturbs sleep patterns and leads to insulin resistance, fueling cravings and weight gain (particularly belly fat). 

Moreover, eating too late at night can cause acid reflux. Normally, it takes about 2-3 hours for your body to digest food. So, lying down right after you’re full can relax your stomach valve, making it easier for stomach acids to travel up your digestive system. 

How to stop binge eating at night

Here are practical tips on how to stop overeating at night, approved by Rita Faycurry, RD, a Registered Dietitian experienced in eating disorder treatment.

1. Monitor and analyze your behavior and emotions

“You can't improve what you don't measure.” - attributed to Peter Drucker.

Track your eating and exercise habits and feelings at night to help you identify patterns that lead to overeating at night.

Journaling your patterns without judgment can help you understand when and how your urges to binge really start.

2. Plan your meals ahead of time when possible

Eating healthy nutrition-dense food and snacks can reduce the chances of impulsive eating and making poor dietary choices later in the day.

A meal plan can help you reduce anxiety about food intake and help you spread your nutrients across the day, keeping hunger at bay.

3. Get enough protein and fiber at dinner

Add enough protein and fiber to your meals, especially during lunch and dinner. If a lack of these nutrients is behind your late night cravings, you will feel satiated.

4. Eat at regular times

Eating at planned intervals and aligning with "normal" eating patterns can help manage cravings and food impulses. Regular meal times can help improve appetite control and manage weight.

5. Try rewarding yourself in other ways

It’s natural to want to relax and feel calm at the end of a long day. But instead of reaching for your favorite snacks as soon as a craving hits, try adding minor delays.

How to feel like you’re treating yourself at the end of the day:

  • Play your favorite songs before your cravings usually hit—you know, the ones that immediately bring back good memories and make you move your body to the rhythm or sing out loud.
  • Write down or think of three things that made you smile or laugh during the day, no matter how small.
  • Call someone who makes you laugh, or find a funny meme or video that lightens your mood.

These are just examples; try other ideas and see what works. Soon, you may even look forward to this new relaxation activity as part of your nighttime routine.

6. Address your stress

Anxiety and stress are common triggers for overeating. Instead of using food as a coping mechanism, finding other means to release negative emotions and relax can be beneficial.

Techniques like breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, and gentle exercise are some ways to help manage stress and reduce the urge to overeat.

If you can avoid certain stressful situations, stay away from them. Here are some examples:

  • Consider muting notifications on your apps at night. If you do not have to, try not to check your work email before going to bed (unless you plan on working right after).
  • If the tension in horror movies or suspenseful thrillers makes you reach for a bucket of buttered popcorn or a bag of chips, avoid them at night.
  • If you have a lot of trigger foods in the house, give them away.
  • If politics or the daily news stress you out, do not watch, discuss, or read about these topics at night.
  • If you find yourself ruminating about something that happened during the day or something someone did or said to you in the past, or about the uncertain future, consider counseling to help you manage these thoughts.

7. Watch for boredom during transitions

Sometimes, not knowing what to do during a break from work or as you transition from one activity to another can trigger the urge to binge eat.

Some common transition-time triggers for binge eating at night are:

  • You finish dinner and have time before you sleep.
  • You need to load the dishwasher or tidy up before you sleep, but you are tired and don’t feel like it, so you procrastinate.
  • You wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom but take the long way back to bed after grabbing a snack.
  • You put the kids to bed and have nothing to do.
  • You have to work after dinner, so you binge on ‘picker-upper’ snacks while you work.
  • You wake up at night with your mind racing, and food helps you calm down and sleep.

There may be others, and journaling your cravings to binge can help you identify patterns.

8. Go to bed earlier

If you’re tired, go to bed.

Plan a calm morning after a good rest if you feel cheated out of a relaxing ‘me-time’ at night. Remember, there’s no rule against catching up with your favorite shows in the morning!

Eventually, you may surprise yourself by looking forward to getting to bed early and relaxing while you eat a nutritious and tasty breakfast.

9. Consider professional help to unlearn night eating patterns

Binge eating at night, late night cravings, and night eating syndrome are complex conditions, and there may be more than one reason why you binge.

For example, anxiety or boredom may have had you reaching for a salty snack in your childhood. However, as an adult, if you have been binge eating for a while, you may have developed a hormonal imbalance or an issue with your gut. So, now you have more triggers for your binge eating.

Trying to manage it all by yourself can be overwhelming. A professional could help support your efforts towards better health.

Final Thoughts

Binge eating at night is challenging, but with the right strategies and support, it can be managed effectively. Remember, overcoming this pattern of eating takes time, patience, and consistency.

Don't be too hard on yourself; remember to celebrate small victories along the way.

If you’re struggling, don't hesitate to seek professional help. You're not alone in this journey, and there are resources to help you regain control over your eating habits. Fay can help you find a Registered Dietitian near you, covered by your insurance.


The views expressed by authors and contributors of such content are not endorsed or approved by Fay and are intended for informational purposes only. The content is reviewed by Fay only to confirm educational value and audience interest. You are encouraged to discuss any questions that you may have about your health with a healthcare provider.


Sources

Fay Nutrition has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.


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Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Chandana Balasubramanian is an experienced healthcare executive who writes on the intersection of healthcare and technology. She is the President of Global Insight Advisory Network and has a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

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Rita Faycurry, RD

Medically Reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

Rita Faycurry, RD is a board-certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in clinical nutrition for chronic conditions. Her approach to health is centered around the idea that the mind and body are intimately connected and that true healing requires an evidence-based and integrative approach that addresses the root cause of disease. In her books and articles, Rita offers practical tips and insights on how to care for your body, mind, and spirit to achieve optimal health and wellness.

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