We’ve all been there — restless and unable to sleep, fridge open in the middle of the night, hand in a bag of cheese or a box of cookies.
Night eating is something we’ve all done on rare occasions, whether it’s due to a long, busy day at work or a spell of insomnia. However, sometimes night eating can shift from a once-in-a-while occurrence to an everyday habit — and that’s when it can turn sour.
Habitual night eating may cause digestive problems and weight gain, and it can be a major saboteur if you’ve got health goals you’re striving to reach.
In this guide, we’ll share what night eating is along with six tips to help you break the midnight munchies cycle once and for all.
What is Night Eating?
Night eating is exactly what it sounds like: eating at night.
While this may not be too problematic if you work night shifts, it can be a problem if you’re awake and eating normally during the day — followed by more eating at night.
Although all of us eat at night sometimes, when it becomes habitual it starts to become a problem that may keep you from reaching your health goals.
Many times, night eating can lead to unwanted weight gain and may contribute to other health complications — like digestive issues, or even chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes or heart disease.
Night Eating Syndrome
Night eating that is severe and frequent enough may actually be an eating disorder. Night eating syndrome (NES) is characterized by [*]:
- Consuming a quarter or more of your daily calorie intake after dinner
- Waking up at least twice per week to eat in the middle of the night
Roughly 1.5% of the population has NES, and there is a lot of overlap between NES and binge eating disorder [*].
If you think you may have NES, it’s important to seek care from an integrated eating disorder team that includes a physician, a licensed therapist or psychiatrist, and a registered dietitian.
Why are Food Cravings Stronger at Night?
Many people who eat at night suffer from very strong food cravings in the late evening and into the night. But why is this, exactly? There are a few potential reasons.
Researchers have found that cortisol, the stress hormone, is elevated during the nighttime hours in people who engage in habitual night eating. Comfort foods that prompt the release of dopamine — like carb-rich, sugary, salty, and fatty foods — may actually help to relieve this stress temporarily [*,*].
At the same time, many people may be ashamed of their urges to binge or eat large quantities of food. Therefore, they do it at night when they are least likely to be caught by a family member or loved one.
Research has also shown that sleep deprivation is linked to choosing more calorie-dense foods that are richer in sugar and fat [*].
Downsides of Night Eating
The major downsides of night eating include digestive issues, weight gain, and the development of chronic health conditions like type 2 diabetes.
When you’re asleep, everything slows down — digestion included. Also, you’re horizontal. Both of these factors, plus a belly full of food, is a recipe for digestive issues like gas, bloating, and heartburn [*].
Night eating has also been linked to gut dysbiosis, or an imbalance of the bacteria in the large intestine [*].
Night eating has also been linked to unwanted weight gain [*].
If you are having large quantities of food after you’ve already eaten three standard meals during the day, then a surplus of calories — prompting weight gain — is almost unavoidable.
Chronic Health Conditions
Over time, night eating may also contribute to other chronic health conditions. Night eating may promote an inflammatory state, which has been linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune dysfunction, gut dysbiosis, and several other health problems [*,*].
6 Tips to Help You Stop Night Eating
Struggling with night eating? Here are six tips to help you break the night eating cycle.
Although many people on Keto choose to skip breakfast, you may want to consider keeping it in your routine if you are a night eater.
Studies have shown that people who eat breakfast are less likely to overconsume later in the day. Eating breakfast is also a commonly reported habit among people who have successfully maintained weight loss [*,*].
Intermittent fasting may be a helpful strategy for people dealing with night eating. If you have a set time each day when you know you need to stop eating, it may make it easier to say no when those food cravings start at night.
For night eating, you may want to eat a large, filling dinner fairly early in the evening, and then fast until breakfast the next morning.
Eat More Protein, Fat, and Fiber
You may also want to do some tweaking to the composition of your meals.
Protein and fiber are filling, and they should have a starring role in every meal and snack you eat. Likewise, fat can help make meals more satisfying [*].
Keto-friendly protein can be found in meats, eggs, nuts, and seeds, while keto-friendly fiber will be from non-starchy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and low-carb berries like strawberries. If the food you’re eating doesn’t already have fat (for example, from a fatty cut of meat), be sure to cook it in butter or avocado oil, or add a drizzle of fatty dressing or a sprinkle of cheese over the top.
If your meals are lacking any one of these components, you may be getting hungry sooner than is necessary.
Go to Bed Earlier
Have you ever heard the saying “sleep is the best medicine?” Whoever first said it may have been on to something.
One way to limit night eating is to simply go to bed earlier, before those nighttime cravings begin! We know it’s easier said than done, but it’s worth doing some research on sleep hygiene and how to craft a great sleep environment to make sure you are getting plenty of rest.
Additionally, since sleep deprivation typically causes people to make poorer food choices, getting more sleep may naturally help reduce your cravings [*].
Create an “OK” List for Night Eating
A lot of night eating is prompted by food cravings for high-calorie, high-carb, “pleasure” foods. However, we know that giving in to these cravings regularly could lead to health problems.
Still, researchers have found that small snacks of roughly 150 calories before or around bedtime may be harmless or even beneficial [*].
If you’re worried you may not be able to quit night eating cold turkey, then feel free to make a short list of healthy snack foods that are OK to eat at night — at least for now.
You’ll want to make sure that these are filling foods that don’t really light up those pleasure centers in your brain like sugary, fatty, salty junk foods do.
Consider things like hard-boiled eggs, low-sugar beef jerky, and almonds. Also, allow yourself to have hot herbal tea (a caffeine-free sleep blend, preferably) with a bit of cream, if needed.
Track Your Food Intake
Finally, you’ll want to track your food intake so that you have a very clear understanding of exactly what and how much you’re eating during each night eating episode and how that amount affects your total daily food consumption.
You may be surprised at how much sugar or how many calories can be hiding in highly-processed, “crave-worthy” foods.
With Carb Manager Premium, you can add time stamps to each meal or snack entry you make — making it easy to distinguish night eating episodes from your regular meal intake.
You can also set fasting goals, along with macronutrient targets for each meal to help you stay on track. And don’t forget about our supportive community in the app and on social media.
We’re here to cheer you on as you make small changes that add up to big progress toward your health goals. Here’s to eating well (and early)!