For some people, it happens every evening like clockwork. For others it is an unpredictable occurrence that strikes when they aren’t expecting. It can keep you awake all night and make you feel groggy and depressed the next day. This phenomenon is known as Night Time Binge Eating.
A recent study by Harvard University reports that 2.8% or one out of every 35 adults in the US binge eats at night with similar numbers in the UK. As a recovery coach, I’ve seen first hand that night time has proven to be the most triggering time for nearly every person with bulimia.
So the important questions are:
Why are so many people binge eating at night? And how can they stop?
The answer to the ‘why’ question varies by each individual. This is why differentiating between a body binge and a mind binge is so important.
What is a body binge?
Basically, this occurs when the body is at a calorie deficit. Whether it is due to fasting, a restrictive diet or over exercise, the body isn’t getting enough food to match the energy expended.
Numerous peer-reviewed publications have shown that food restriction not only causes increased amounts of stress hormones, but is actually directly related to weight gain!
Sure, the participants in these studies may have lost pounds initially, but in the long-run they consistently gained up to 20% more than they had lost. This can be described as ‘yo-yo dieting’ where an individual’s weight fluctuates between periods of dieting and overeating. This can also be attributed to binge eating as a result of a calorie deficit.
What is a mind binge?
If a person experiences body binges, it can become a habit or part of a daily routine. Eventually, this leads to emotions and stress being handled with food, also known as ‘mind binges’.
Once a person has become accustomed to managing difficult situations or unpleasant feelings by eating, the habit of binge eating becomes even more difficult to break.
Another aspect that exacerbates this problem is the labeling of food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Once a food is labeled as bad or off-limits, the appeal and temptation to eat it increases exponentially. This increases the likelihood of using the food to rebel or take out anger and frustration.
So, how does a person stop binging at night?
The phenomenon of night eating is due to several factors and varies for each individual. Most people who overeat in the evenings do so because of calorie restriction during the day.
Their bodies simply didn’t get enough food; therefore a binge urge occurs in order to meet the nutritional needs. Others binge due to high-stress or negative emotions that are not being dealt with in a healthy manner.
Still others experience different reasons such as habit, loneliness, boredom, the presence of triggering foods that are labeled ‘off-limits’ and several other factors.
Whatever the cause, the following tips can help you overcome night binging forever, allowing more time for fun activities and relaxation in the evenings.
1. Recognize your trigger patterns.
Sometimes a binge urge seems to come out of nowhere. Other times, it seems very methodical and even part of a daily routine. Being able to recognize the signs of an approaching binge urge gives you enough time to decide how you will handle it.
The best way to recognize trigger patterns is to keep a recovery journal. This is a very effective way to track your emotions, stressful events and other factors that lead up to a binge. You may discover that you struggle on a certain day of the week or a specific time each night. High stress situations or boredom could be your trigger. It could happen every time you skip a meal or if you exercise excessively. Once you record your habits for a few weeks and you can recognize trigger patterns, you can become more empowered to handle the urges before they become overwhelming.
2. Change your routine.
Most of us have heard that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Binge eating certainly feels like insanity at times, promising over and over to never do it again, then falling back into it the next night. So don’t practice insanity! Change your routine in order to develop new habits.
Socrates said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Don’t be afraid to build a new routine around the evening and dinner time.
Here are some ways to adjust your evening:
- Leave the TV off. The food commercials and unrealistic images of models and thin actors/actresses are not helpful for recovery. Plus, TV and snacking tend to coincide.
- Call or text someone. Even if the person has no idea you are doing it to recover, they will be happy to hear from you. Perhaps you have an older relative who would be available to talk. You could make a certain weeknight your ‘call grandma/dad/great aunt’ time. You can also find a texting buddy on the Bulimia Help community site.
- Plan ahead. Know what you will have for your dinner and snack. If you show up to the pantry hungry without a plan, you may end up with a relapse before you realize what happened.
- Limit or avoid alcohol. Some people can have one drink and manage not to binge. For many, however, alcohol leads directly to eating out of control. The change in blood sugar and lowered inhibitions can set you up for disaster. It’s usually best to avoid alcohol during recovery.
3. Plan your breakfast ahead of time.
A balanced breakfast can not only start your day well-fueled, it can prevent binge eating at night. Once you are in the habit of eating breakfast each day, your body no longer feels the need to eat all of its calories in the evening.
A balanced breakfast should consist of carbohydrates, protein and fat. It should also be large enough and contain enough calories to keep you energized throughout the entire morning.
A small snack before lunch is also very helpful to keep your hunger levels low throughout the day. The idea is to stabilize blood sugar and keep your energy levels up.
A good sized, balanced breakfast can help do just that. It is also less alluring to overeat at night when you have plans to eat in the morning. When you habitually skip breakfast, your body knows that night time is the greatest opportunity to get the nutrition you need.
Once you begin your day with a proper meal, night eating becomes less important for obtaining enough food for energy.
4. Have someone to talk to.
Loneliness can cause people to reach for food as comfort. Having someone to talk with about your eating disorder is very important. Try to find someone you can trust and who is familiar with bulimia. You can join our recovery program and support community to find sufferers in a similar situation as yourself. Hiding your secret will only lead to shame, guilt and additional frustration.
5. Be kind to yourself.
The most common reactions to a slip-up include negative emotions such as disappointment, regret, guilt, shame and self-loathing. These feelings only perpetuate the cycle of an unhealthy relationship with food.
The most productive reaction to a relapse is often the most difficult: remain calm and analyze what happened. By looking at things more neutrally instead of with anger or frustration, you can pinpoint your triggers and plan for the future. If you are consumed with negativity, this will be nearly impossible. Try to be understanding and patient with yourself.
Recovery takes time, and relapse is often part of recovery. View it as a learning experience instead of a failure and you will come out with valuable new knowledge to use next time.
6. Manage stress in a healthy way.
Many people report binge urges as occurring after stressful events at work, an argument with a loved one or an uncontrollable situation. Stressful events will always be part of life. The object is not to eliminate stress from your life, as that would be impossible. Instead, the goal is to create new, healthy ways to manage stress that you can use on a daily basis.
By using food for stress management, you are only masking the problem. Eating your emotions does not help you deal with them, it only postpones the time in which you will deal with them.
As stressful events occur, try and manage them quickly so that they don’t linger around and create a ‘snowball’ effect where they pile up and become overwhelming.
Here are some simple stress management tips:
- Practice relaxation throughout the day. Emotions and stress tend to present themselves at night because they haven’t been handled throughout the day. You aren’t too busy to stop and take a few deep breaths or go for a quick walk. An afternoon cup of tea or a minute in the car listening to music before you head home can work wonders.
- Simplify. Are you multitasking too much? Spending too much time on social media sites? Making unnecessary appointments or meetings? Take time to weed out the extra tasks and you’ll have more time to focus on what is really important.
- Do something you love each day. Too many people get trapped into a boring routine they don’t particularly enjoy. Whether you are reading a fascinating book, learning a new form of art or playing a game with your family, do something that really makes you happy.
- Smile more. Studies have shown that people who smiled on command felt happier than those who frowned when done so on command in the same environment. This has nothing to do with their situations; it was simply the act of smiling that made them feel better. Try it yourself. Smile at a stranger or at yourself in the mirror