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Why does binge eating usually happen at night? And what can you do about it?

Written by Dr. Danielle Keenan-Miller

For people with binge eating disorder (BED), nighttime is an especially high risk period for experiencing a binge episode (1). New research published in the International Journal of Obesity (2) sheds some light on the role of stress and hunger hormones in driving this nighttime eating. Higher body weight individuals with or without BED were brought into the lab either in the morning or the evening after they had fasted for eight hours. They were put through a stressful experience and then given a large buffet meal. The researchers found that adults were hungrier in the evening than the daytime, even though both groups had fasted for the same length of time, and that stress increased hunger hormones more later in the day than it did earlier in the day. The increases in hunger hormones in evening were particularly pronounced among the group who had BED. The participants with binge BED also reported lower fullness in the evening, even after eating the buffet, and higher feelings that their eating at the buffet was out of control. Basically, biology and the increased risk of experiencing stress as the day goes on interact to place individuals with BED at risk for binge eating episodes at the end of the day.

So what can be done to prevent these late night binges? The first and single most important factor is spreading your calorie intake out over the course of the day. Often people who have a tendency to binge eat try to wait as long as possible to eat, in order to “save” calories for binges or because they fear that once they start eating, they won’t stop. Unfortunately, not eating all day sets up both a powerful physiological and psychological drive to binge. In fact, women with BED are much more likely to binge on days that they had less caloric intake than usual in the morning and afternoon (3). Even if you’re not hungry in the morning, start the day by eating breakfast and commit to eating three meals and two or three snacks over the course of the day. That will reduce the innate biological drive to binge.

Another strategy that can help is spending time with others at the end of the day. Binge eating is often done in secret, and merely bringing your eating into the light of day by sharing a meal with friends, family, members of a spiritual community, or coworkers can reduce the likelihood of a binge. It’s important not to restrict during those meals with others, or to limit yourself only to eating what you think you “should” eat while secretly promising yourself a binge later– eat what you desire, in a quantity that satisfies you. Do what you can to focus on the people around you and the conversation rather than on the food or your own anxiety about eating. Learning non-eating ways to cope with stress and negative emotion are also important. Finally, figure out what triggers might exist in your environment, and how to change your own habits around those triggers. If stopping at particular places for binge food has become a routine, avoid those places on your drive home. If you associate binge eating with certain television shows or a certain night of the week, shift your routine so that you’re less likely to binge during those times.

1) Raymond, N.C., Neumeyer, B., Warren, C.S., Lee, S.S., & Peterson, C.B. (2003). Energy intake patterns in obese women with binge eating disorder. Obesity Research, 11, 869- 879.

2) Carnell, S., Grillot, C., Ungredda, T., Ellis, S., Mehta, N., Holst, J., & Geliebter, A. (2017). MOrning and afternoon appetite and gut hormone responses to meal and stress challenges in obese individuals with and without binge eating disorder. International Journal of Obesity.

3) Raymond et al. (2003).

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