For people who are still on the diet train or who have recently just stepped off it, we know that dieting can result in the vicious cycle of restriction – deprivation – cravings – binge eating.
Have you ever experienced binge eating, and more specifically wondered how to stop binge eating at night? Because this is a common time of the day that some of my client’s experience it.
Firstly, let’s get one thing straight.
What is a binge?
Because there is a difference between a ‘subjective binge’ (what YOU define as a binge), and an ‘objective binge’ (what a psychologist uses to define an Eating Disorder).
Binge Eating Disorder (BED) (as diagnosed by a psychologist) is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a person who regularly binge eats a large quantity of food in a discrete time period with a sense of feeling out of control (1). The binge eating episodes are usually accompanied with three or more following:
- Eating past the point of uncomfortable
- Eating alone due to embarrassment
- Eating more rapidly than usual
- Feeling upset and guilty afterwards
- Eating a large amount of food when not physically hungry
If you suspect you may have BED, I encourage you to consult your GP for an assessment.
However, just because you may not meet the ‘criteria’ for BED, doesn’t mean you aren’t experiencing suffering or deserve help. A ‘subjective’ binge eating episode may still be accompanied with embarrassment, guilt, eating rapidly, eating a large amount of food…. but not enough food to be considered an ‘objective binge’ for a psychologist to diagnose a BED. A little silly I know.
In this article, I refer to some reasons why you may be experiencing binge eating, and in particular, at night. I also provide recommendations for how to stop binge eating at night. This article is targeted at those experiencing a ‘subjective binge’, without a diagnosed BED.
Restriction during the day:
It is common in diet culture to label foods such as rice cakes and salad as “safe” to eat during the day and “not allow” more substantial meals such as pasta and sandwiches.
Any time a food is out of bounds, it puts it on a pedestal increasing our desire to want to eat that food. There are two ways in which foods can be out of bounds:
- Physically: the diet restricts it.
- Psychologically: we attach a moralistic value to that food and label is as bad, unhealthy.
We then start to desire that food even more, because we tell ourselves we can’t have it … and when we do have it, we’re likely to feel guilt, and eat more than if we’d just allowed it in the first place! (4) (5)
A 2001 study showed that when people were forbidden sweets that were considered “novel”, the attraction to eat them was heightened compared to people who were allowed to eat the “novel” sweet (6). And this idea rings true for any food, not just high sugar foods. A study of kids showed that when they were restricted either sweets or fruit, both groups ate more of the restricted foods (including more fruit!) when they were given the opportunity, compared to a group of kids who weren’t restricted at all (7).
- If you’ve had a really long day or if you had a poor night’s sleep.
- If you’ve done a lot of exercise or if you simply have too much going on.
Being tired makes it difficult to tap into hunger and satiety cues (2). Studies show that people who are unable to get a full night’s sleep (less than six hours) have increased ghrelin (which is the hormone that stimulates hunger) and decreased leptin (which is the hormone that tells us when we are full). These hormones dictate how much we would eat in a day.
Further to this, studies have shown that tiredness can increase food intake by 400 calories in a day (3). A systematic review that analysed 11 different studies found on average that people who had between 3.5 to 5.5 hours sleep the night before ate an additional 385 calories that day compared to when they’d slept at least seven hours.
Many clients I meet that are struggling to stop binge eating at night, are actually just hungry and haven’t tuned into the sensations of hunger.
That bowl of cereal at 8am, and salad at lunchtime, simply hasn’t cut it. Of course they walk through the door ready to eat the house down.
So this, coupled with our hunger hormone ghrelin being revved up in the evening, means we’re in a position where we’re likely to binge on foods that are either physically restricted (through a diet), or psychologically restricted (through good/bad food labelling, coupled with guilt).
If when we get home from a long day there is a food in the cupboard that’s “not allowed”, of course we are going to want to eat all of it … because we’re hungry, potentially restricted ourselves from eating that food (physically or psychologically) and we’re tired!
So how can you stop binge eating at night?
Here I am sharing my experiences of working with 1:1 clients and a couple of the ways in which they have managed to stop binge eating at night.
Meeting basic needs:
This means two things:
1. Get organised for the week so that you feel in control, can schedule regular eating patterns and eat according to hunger.
– Making sure you have a stocked-up fridge with food that can be easily prepared and/or eaten without much fuss (unless cooking at night helps you to unwind!).
– Setting boundaries at work, or with friends/family, so you don’t take too much on.
If Sunday meal prepping is your thing, go ahead and make yourself a few days worth of dinner and lunches ahead of time. But if that doesn’t sounds right for you, take yourself on a shopping trip (or do an online shop) and stock your fridge and cupboard with snacks and fresh produce that don’t require too much preparation. Ready-to-eat meals that you can easily heat and eat each week night are great too!
Check your diary at the end of each week for the week ahead to ensure you’ve not overloaded yourself. Schedule in down time, just like you would any other activity.
If you’re struggling to eat according to hunger, check out my FREE download with a recorded audio guide and actionable workbook which tackles this.
2. Find activities/hobbies that make you feel good and check that you are meeting the basics.
- What is it that makes you feel amazing?
Having a proper night’s sleep? Spending time out in nature? Making space for you time in the week? Curling up on the couch with a good book? Getting out in nature? A bubble bath? A pedicure? Sweating it out in the gym? Spending time with your fur baby? Spending time with your human baby?
Whatever it is, ensure you are meeting your basics (sleep, setting boundaries, managing stress), but also doing things that fill your heart with joy and that help calm your mind. These types of activities are a great way to make sure that we can deal with emotions such as tiredness, anxiety, boredom, loneliness or anger without using food to suppress that feeling. Emotional eating is very common and something I have written about in more detail here.
3. Stop labelling foods as good and bad.
To create a healthy relationship with food, we have to stop describing food in moralistic terms. Because you know what? There is not one food that will make us healthy or unhealthy.
Try to neutralise your language around food, and label foods as what they are. If it’s a croissant, call it a croissant. If it’s a carrot, call is a carrot or vegetable. Neither are good, or bad. They are just food.
Stopping binge eating at night is a process. It takes time to figure out what triggers it and the sorts of things you can do to avoid it. But hopefully after reading this, you have a few ideas up your sleeve. And just remember, if after reading this you still find yourself struggling, do not need to beat yourself up. Move on and be kind to yourself.
This is hard work and the first step is acknowledging it (which you clearly have if you are reading this). So, I encourage you to keep being compassionate and patient as you take these next brave steps to finding how you’re going to do this important work.
You can sign up to my 7 Steps to Find Food Peace and Food Freedom with an audio guide and workbook to get started on how to stop binge eating at night.
(1) National Health Services (NHS). (2017). Overview – Binge Eating Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/binge-eating/.
(2) Shlisky, J. D., Hartman, T. J., Kris-Etherton, P. M., Rogers, C. J., Sharkey, N. A., & Nickols-Richardson, S. M. (2012). Partial Sleep Deprivation and Energy Balance in Adults: An Emerging Issue for Consideration by Dietetics Practitioners. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 112(11), 1785-1797. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2012.07.032
(3) Al Khatib, H. K., Harding, S. V., Darzi, J., & Pot, G. K. (2016). The effects of partial sleep deprivation on energy balance: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 71(5), 614-624. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2016.201
(4) Jansen, E., Mulkens, S., & Jansen, A. (2008). Do not eat the red food! Prohibition of snacks leads to their relatively higher consumption in children. Appetite, 50(2-3), 560.doi:10.1016/j.appet.2007.09.038
(5) Keeler, C. L., Mattes, R. D., & Tan, S. (2015). Anticipatory and reactive responses to chocolate restriction in frequent chocolate consumers. Obesity, 23(6), 1130-1135. doi:10.1002/oby.21098
(6) Mann, T., & Ward, A. (2001). Forbidden fruit: Does thinking about a prohibited food lead to its consumption? International Journal of Eating Disorders, 29(3), 319-327. doi:10.1002/eat.1025
(7) Jansen, E., Mulkens, S., Emond, Y., & Jansen, A. (2008). From the Garden of Eden to the land of plenty. Appetite, 51(3), 570-575. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2008.04.012