Eating late at night can be a norm to many, but it has adverse side effects. Not only does it interfere with your body clock that regulates how your body functions, but it can lead to detrimental health problems like obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and high blood sugar. Additionally, it can also contribute to psychological issues like insomnia and depression (6).
If you find yourself reaching out for food late at night, here’s an in-depth article that explains several reasons why you overeat at night and five clever ways to stop doing it.
What Causes You To Overeat At Night?
Overeating late at night can result from four reasons:
- Stress or emotional challenges
- Poor eating patterns
- Preexisting eating disorders
- Hormonal imbalances
Let’s discuss each of these reasons.
We don’t live in a perfect world where everything goes right and everything falls into place. So it’s natural to experience emotional challenges now and then, more especially stress.
Stress is a major cause of multiple health issues from obesity, high glucose levels, hypertension, and heart disease. Additionally, it can cause binge eating. Stress may result in you eating late at night, where you continue to eat past dinner time, especially in large portions and foods rich in salt, sugar, or starch (10).
A study on night eating syndrome shows that stress can exacerbate eating habits causing one to feed more, especially at night. According to the survey, feelings of hunger and hunger hormone levels were higher following a stress test in the evening than in the morning. The researchers concluded that the evening may be a high risk period for overeating, especially when paired with stress exposure (8).
The same might be said for other emotional challenges such as depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders, concluding that emotions and cognitive stress can onset late-night eating as a relief or a source of comfort.
Cortisol is not the only hormone that contributes to late-night eating. Your appetite, which is controlled by two or more hormones, namely ghrelin for appetite and leptin for satiety which curbs appetite, can change throughout the day. An irregularity in these cycles may cause you to eat late at night.
Ideally, your body has hunger and satiety cues throughout the day, which you should obey. It is something called intuitive eating. However, our body clocks or the body’s circadian rhythm can offset these appetite hormones, which change our feeding rhythms to cause us to feel more appetite at night rather than in the morning or during the day (7, 12).
According to our body rhythm, we should eat at regular intervals to keep our energy levels up. If the body clock is affected in any way, for example, either lack of sleep, stress, or other factors, our appetite hormones can change, causing our ghrelin to increase in the evening, past 8 pm leading us to eat late at night.
Poor Eating Patterns
Generally speaking, you can opt to eat less during the day, probably due to work, a busy schedule, lack of appetite, or just norm. Unfortunately, eating less during the said time means the body might crave food at night to compensate for the lost energy. Therefore, if you have poor feeding habits during the day, it can affect your eating habits at night.
Preexisting Eating Disorder
Last but not least, you may be eating late at night because you have or you’re at the onset of an eating disorder. If you have a preexisting eating disorder like binge eating disorder (BED), then it’s a habit that you find yourself feeding more at night.
How To Stop Eating So Much At Night?
Now that you know why you’re eating late at night, let’s give you actionable tips on how to stop eating so much in the evening.
1. Identify The Cause Or Triggers
You may assume that late-night eating is normal because that’s what you do every night, when you’re bored or when you can’t sleep. However, sometimes there’s more to it than that. The first course of action to take is to identify the cause or trigger of your late-night eating.
From the four causes above, you could be practicing poor eating habits, maybe dealing with too much stress, or you may have an eating disorder called the night eating syndrome. The Night Eating Syndrome (NES) is a condition where you indulge in nighttime eating recurrences described as either excessive food consumption past dinner or waking up in the middle of the night specifically to eat (2). NES has symptoms such as:
- Morning anorexia where you don’t feel like eating in the morning
- Strong urge to eat between dinner time and sleep time
- Maintenance insomnia
- Frequency of mood worsening
- Belief that one can’t sleep without eating
Although the night eating syndrome is its own distinct eating disorder, it has some similarities to binge eating disorder. These similarities include emotional attachments, lack of control, and adverse health effects like obesity, insomnia, and depression. Additionally, both eating disorders feature the need to eat or use food to curb emotions and feed on large portions in one sitting (3).
To identify if you may have night eating syndrome, you can get a food journal to record all your feeding patterns, portions, types of food you consume, and emotions during feeding. Suppose you notice you feed more at night than during the rest of the day. A prominent characteristic of NES is consuming 25% or more of total daily calories after dinner or during nocturnal awakenings (1).
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2. Practice Better Nutrition
Our nutrition plays a vital role in curbing this behavior because if we eat adequately throughout the day, we’re less likely to crave more at night. Additionally, if you have poor eating patterns, your body lacks the energy it needs for rest energy expenditure through the night.
The first step towards better nutrition is to feed on nutritious, fibrous, and healthy foods such as leafy green vegetables, proteins, and whole-grain starch. Leafy vegetables and whole-grain starch packs load fiber which will surely leave you fuller for longer, and if you take your dinner with plenty of these fibrous foods, you’re less likely to want to eat before bed again.
Avoid or limit highly processed foods and ready-to-eat foods because they’re packed with salt, sugar, and fats, encouraging you to feed on them more. Biologically, when you eat these foods, your brain releases dopamine which stimulates you to keep eating. It also curbs leptin (the satiety hormone), resulting in overeating.
3. Plan For Meals
Now that you know what to eat, the next way to curb this habit is to plan your meals. Our circadian rhythm guides our everyday movement from the time we sleep to when we wake up, the time we eat, and the hormones we release at different times of the day. If the rhythm runs optimally, we should ideally eat at regular intervals in the day, for example, three meals a day or maybe six times a day, depending on what our body needs (13).
That said, you should plan your meals to ensure you feed at regular intervals so that your body feels satisfied at the end of the day. Note that there are different healthy eating patterns, but you can stick to the standard three meals a day; indulge in a hearty breakfast, fibrous lunch, and a satiating dinner. If you feel the need to eat after dinner, you can eat healthy late-night snacks, more about that in the next section.
This method of planning your meals is essential because if your circadian rhythm is off, you can experience insomnia, mood change, and the urge to eat at odd hours, including night overeating/ evening hyperphagia. Therefore, the plan is to help you avoid missing meals like breakfast or lunch as that can cause hormonal imbalances where your ghrelin increases at night, causing you to overeat.
If you feel like you can’t stay long between meal times, you can opt to take later dinners so that the gap between the evening meal and breakfast isn’t that long. This can help with those who experience nocturnal ingestions where you wake up late at night to feed. Then again, plan your meals to be as satisfying as possible as this too can curb nighttime eating. Getting enough protein and fiber in the evening meal can help you feel satisfied throughout the night.
If you restrict your meal size for breakfast and lunch, you’re likely to compensate during or after dinner, so you must be deliberate about including hearty foods into your diet to ensure you are satisfied with all your three meals.
4. Eat Healthy Night Snacks
It’s odd, we advise against late-night eating, yet we talk about eating snacks to curb nighttime eating. As strange as this might be, eating healthy night snacks can actually help you curb nighttime eating.
Biologically speaking, late-night eating often includes unhealthy foods rich in salt, sugar, or fat. Most of these foods make our bodies happy and cause the brain to release dopamine, the happy hormone. As the dopamine levels increase in the body, we continue to indulge in these foods to keep the body happy and satisfied. Unfortunately, this is what leads to weight gain.
Additionally, these foods rich in added sugars have high glycemic indexes, which spike blood glucose levels, causing glucose dysregulation that affects moods and causes food cravings.
Eating healthy and good late-night snacks that don’t contain too many simple sugars or fats causes the body to remain within the regulated blood glucose levels, which curbs food cravings. Additionally, some of these healthy night snacks are packed with melatonin tryptophan, which induces sleep, helping you sleep better without having to feed again (5).
Examples of healthy nighttime snacks include:
- Meats and fish sandwiches
- Cereals like wheat, barley, and oatmeal
- Yogurt and other dairy products
- Nuts like macadamia, almond, hazelnuts, pistachios, peanuts, and walnuts
- Fruits like cherries, grapes, and strawberries
- Legumes like soybeans
- Vegetables like potatoes and beetroot
- Chinese herbal tea
All these snacks are rich sources of melatonin and the amino acid tryptophan, which help you sleep better and reduce food cravings.
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5. Seek Support
The last clever way to stop eating late at night is to seek support. First, you can speak to your family and friends about your struggle to stop late-night eating. It’s nothing to be ashamed about, and there are certainly other people out there who face the same problem.
You could also seek professional help from nutritionists, therapists, or other professionals to help you curb this habit. Several treatment options are in play at the moment to help night eating syndrome, such as psychotherapy using cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a similar treatment approach to binge eating disorders (9). Be sure to seek out a therapist who is experienced in treating eating disorders.
The idea is to build rapport during therapy and educate about this technique while monitoring eating habits, sleep patterns, and negative thinking. In a study on the use of CBT, the patients underwent this treatment approach to regulate eating and sleeping patterns and learn coping mechanisms for those who are already overweight. The study showed positive results as many patients significantly reduced their calorie intake in the evening plus additional benefits like improved moods, better life quality, and significant weight loss (4).
There are also pharmacological treatments for night eating syndrome, including the use of serotonin enhancers to boost sleep and mood. A decrease in serotonin in the body can lead to a dysregulation of circadian rhythm; hence, increasing appetite and an increased risk of evening hyperphagia and nocturnal ingestions. However, with an increase in serotonin which is significant in eating habits, mood, and sleep, there can be a decrease in nighttime eating (1).
The pharmacological treatments will therefore sometimes include the intake of SSRIs to increase the postsynaptic serotonergic activity in the body and blocking the serotonin reuptake transporter (1).
Other treatment options would be stress reduction techniques that you can indulge in by talking to your therapist or working with friends to indulge in stress-relieving practices like meditation, yoga, exercise, or partaking in a hobby.
Late-night eating has many adverse side effects, including the risk of health problems like obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, cardiovascular diseases, and psychological issues such as insomnia and depression.
As a way to help you deal with the habit of late-night eating, start with identifying the causes and triggers. After that, use either or all the five clever ways above to help you stop eating late at night.
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This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. A licensed physician should be consulted for the diagnosis and treatment of any medical condition. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- A biobehavioral model of the night eating syndrome (2009, pubmed.Nih.gov)
- Behavioral and neuroendocrine characteristics of the night-eating syndrome (1999, pubmed.Nih.gov)
- Binge eating disorder and night eating syndrome (2005, pubmed.Nih.gov)
- Cognitive behavior therapy for night eating syndrome (2010, pubmed.Nih.gov)
- Dietary Sources and Bioactivities of Melatonin (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Disordered eating and obesity (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Later circadian timing of food intake is associated with increased body fat (2017, academic.oup.com)
- Morning and afternoon appetite and gut hormone responses to meal and stress challenges in obese individuals with and without binge eating disorder (2017, nature.com)
- Optimal management of night eating syndrome: challenges and solutions (2015, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Stress may add bite to appetite in women (2001, pubmed.Nih.gov)
- The Effects of Carbohydrates, in Isolation and Combined with Caffeine, on Cognitive Performance and Mood (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The Internal Circadian Clock Increases Hunger and Appetite in the Evening, Independent of Food Intake and Other Behaviors, (2013, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- When to Eat: The Importance of Eating Patterns in Health and Disease (2019, journals.sagepub.com)