My message the other day was about eating too much at night, inspired by B. who wrote me an email.  I was impressed by her making small changes, like not bingeing at night, and walking – nothing else.  Because of these small changes she had lost 32 pounds and 2 dress sizes.  

Several people posted comments, and asked me to write more about eating at night, which I am happy to do.

There are lots of “diets” and weight loss programs that specify that we should not eat after 7, or 8, or 9 p.m., as it causes weight gain.  I’ve heard many stories that add up to something like “the digestive system slows down when we’re tired or sleeping and the food just sits there and turns to fat.”  Those stories have just not added up to anything provable.  There are lots of anecdotal reports, though, that eating much at night is problematic. You may have your own to report.

There are a few studies that have tried to find a correlation between nighttime eating and weight gain, or difficulty losing weight, but none that I am aware of that confirm it.  One research study conducted by the Oregon Heath and Science University some 5 or so years ago did not find a connection, but they were studying monkeys, and it was a tangential finding in a study about female growth hormones and weight gain. The Weight-control Information Network at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders says “it does not matter what time you eat.” As for the digestive system shutting down while we sleep, that’s just not true.  We’re always digesting and metabolizing, awake or asleep.

There is, however, an identified medical condition called “Night Eating Syndrome,” (or NES) initially described in 1955 by Albert J. Stunkard, MD of the University of Pennsylvania.  In their 2004 book, “Overcoming Night Eating Syndrome,” authors Kelly C. Allison, Ph.D., Albert J. Stunkard, MD, and Sara L. Thier discuss the syndrome as an eating disorder often linked with depression, where the sufferer may eat more late at night than at dinner, has to awaken from sleep and eat, feel tired all day but then binge at night, skip or delay breakfast, etc.  They offer ways to treat it – take a look here if you are interested in obtaining the book, or get it from your local bookstore, or free library.

Aside from NES, the eating disorder above that calls out for professional assistance, my experience with evening or late night eating is this: weight gain or loss is not so much about eating at night or not, it is about the amount and type of foods consumed not only in a 24 hour period, but over several days, weeks and months.  It’s the average amount of calories eaten and burned over extended periods of time that adds up to weight changes.

  • When I stick with my Joy of Weight Loss Food Plan, there are a specific number of foods and classes of foods eaten on a daily basis, and if I follow it, I stay in good shape.  I do not count calories, fats, etc., but I am aware of them. I do count amounts and types of foods, and space my eating every few hours, even a little at night.
  • I allow myself a small snack before bed: a few crackers, a cup of yogurt or fruit, or unsweetened applesauce.
  • I think for me, and a lot of people I counsel – eating at night is about a quest for energy.  I feel tired and I need some quick food for energy.  However, I’ve learned the best way to get energy at night is to rest and to sleep, not eat. (Needing energy during the day is another matter, which I will write about soon.)
  • Eating at night might also be a way to alter moods, such as stress, feeling sad or blue, or even just bored.  There are many other ways to feel better that I write about often, but a couple of great ones are to wait 20 minutes between the craving and the eating; go out for an evening walk (if it’s early, and safe, of course), watch a movie or read a book.

My student, B., wrote that she had stopped “bingeing” at night.  This is a very important distinction.  Absolutely, if you are bingeing, defined as uncontrolled, or compulsive overeating, that is a big problem and it definitely would amount to weight problems.  Bingeing is also an eating disorder, and professional treatment is needed.

B. stopped bingeing with help from God, and her own repeated determination.  Fantastic, B.!  Simply put, in her own words, she “just stopped.”  That and a daily walk amounts to continued weight loss for her. That’s it.  Little changes added up to big results – it can for you, too.  I suspect that B. was not actually bingeing though, as I defined above, but possibly habitually overeating in large amounts.

I have had many, many clients that don’t eat much during the day for various reasons, like work demands, continually varying schedules, or just habits, then eat huge dinners, dessert, and then massive night feasts.  Not good!

There are also people I’ve worked with who have “the munchies,” from smoking pot.  Their blood sugar likely plummets as a byproduct of smoking, then they are desperate and go on an eating rampage.  This is a problem, certainly, when it comes to weight management.

Whatever your nighttime food situation, let’s just say that eating more than a little tiny bit before bed is not a great idea.  Best to eat every few hours, throughout the day, of very healthy foods in balance, and stop eating a couple of hours before bed.  If you are truly bingeing, or find yourself having to wake up and eat, to alter moods, or if you fit the definitions of Nighttime Eating Disorder, please do seek medical attention right away.

Write a comment below, and talk about what nighttime eating amounts to in your life – if you do or don’t – what and how much – if you did how you’ve dealt with it – thoughts, ideas, advice.  We love hearing from you.

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