Do you often get out of bed for a midnight meal or to sneak a snack? Do you regularly eat a lot of food at night? You might have night eating syndrome. Or, depending on your other symptoms, you might have binge eating disorder.
How do you tell the difference?
Bingeing and night eating are two completely different types of eating disorders, but the symptoms and health effects can be similar. (You can even have both at the same time.)
Here are some ways to tell them apart.
In both disorders, you eat when you're not hungry. “People are turning to food for comfort,” says Kelly Allison, PhD. She’s the director of clinical services at the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania.
- People with binge eating disorder often try to numb emotions, like sad or angry feelings, with food.
- People with night eating syndrome wake up and grab a meal or snack to soothe insomnia and help themselves fall back asleep.
“Both behaviors have a driven quality,” says Cynthia Bulik, PhD. She's the founding director of the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders. “Once the urge arises it is very difficult and, for many, impossible to resist it until they give in.”
Another difference between the two conditions:
- People who binge eat have a lot of food in a short period of time (called a “binge” or “binge episode”).
- Night eaters graze on food throughout the evening. They might not eat a large amount at a time. They often wake up several times a night for something like a bowl of cereal, and then they go back to bed.
You might have night eating syndrome if you:
- Eat mostly at night, getting more than 25% of the day’s calories after the usual evening mealtime.
- Wake up three or more times a week to eat.
- Believe that eating will help you sleep better.
- Don't eat very much or feel hungry in the morning.
- Remember that you woke up and ate. (The condition is not the same as eating that happens during sleepwalking -- called “nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder” -- or after taking sleep medication.)
You might have binge eating disorder if you:
- Eat a very large amount of food in a short period of time.
- Feel that your eating is out of control (as if you can’t stop eating).
- Continue to have food after you're full (even when your belly hurts).
- Binge in secret because you're embarrassed.
- Overeat again and again, and feel upset or guilty afterward.
Eating disorders can be passed down through families.
- Binge eating might be due to a problem with genes that control appetite and mood. That means if your mother or grandmother binged, you're more likely to do it, too.
- Night eating syndrome might be linked to a problem with genes that help sync your body’s hunger schedule to your daily sleep rhythms. Some research suggests abnormal levels of stress hormones in the body also play a role.
Both conditions can make you gain weight. They might even lead to obesity. Having too much body fat makes you more likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar (diabetes), and even things like gallbladder disease.
A low (depressed) mood is common in both conditions.
If you have binge eating disorder, being depressed might make you overeat. Overeating, in turn, can make you depressed. Many people with this condition also have clinical depression.
Night eaters, according to one study, tend to be more depressed at night.
Stress and anxiety related to any type of eating disorder can make you toss and turn at night. But people with night eating syndrome often have a lot of sleep problems, including:
- Waking up several times a night
- Sleeping less hours than the body needs
- Feeling sleepy during the day
These sleep troubles can make you exhausted, and that might affect your ability to do well at work, Bulik says.
Both binge eating disorder and night eating syndrome can be treated.
With bingeing, the first step is to learn what triggers your overeating. A type of talk therapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy works well for people who binge eat. Early research shows it also helps those with night eating syndrome.
You should also set up and stick to regular meal and sleep times, Bulik says.