This article was written by Associate Registered Nutritionist (ANutr) Sophie Gastman, and reviewed by Registered Dietitian Maeve Hanan.
Let’s face it, most of us have probably experienced emotional eating before at some point in our lives. We’ve all had those moments when we’ve turned to chocolate or ice cream straight out of the tub, eating for comfort rather than hunger. It’s a common coping mechanism for many of us to deal with life’s stressors. But, when it becomes the only way to cope with difficult emotions and events, it can quickly spiral into a problem. These difficult emotions can often rear their ugly head in the evenings when there are less things to distract us, which can explain why some of us tend to have an increased urge to binge at night time.
This article will explain the difference between bingeing and emotional eating, as well as how to understand the triggers and strategies to manage it at night.
Is It a Binge or Emotional Eating?
Understanding whether it’s a binge or emotional eating can be tricky as the symptoms can often overlap, blurring the lines between the two.
Binge eating involves consuming an abnormally large amount of food in a short period of time, often accompanied by feelings of being out of control.
Binge eating is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in relation to binge eating disorder as:
“Recurrent episodes of binge eating. An episode of binge eating is characterised by both of the following:
- Eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any 2-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances
- The sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating)”
There are 4 other criteria that need to be met in order for binge eating to be classified as binge eating disorder. These criteria include experiencing marked distress, the frequency of binges, lack of inappropriate compensatory behaviours and whether or not the binge eating episodes are associated with other behaviours such as eating more rapidly than normal or eating alone due to embarrassment (1).
Emotional eating, on the other hand, is eating in response to emotions rather than hunger cues.
We can eat in response to both positive and negative emotions, but when people talk about emotional eating they are usually referring to comfort eating.
However, it’s important to note that emotional eating and binge eating are not always synonymous, and not everyone who emotionally eats will necessarily binge eat. Some people may be able to manage their food intake during emotional eating episodes while others may find it difficult to do so.
Both types of behaviours can feel overwhelming and all-consuming but it’s important to remember that they can be overcome with the right tools and support and it is possible to develop a healthier relationship with food.
Understanding the Triggers
If you feel like you have a healthy eating pattern throughout the day but you seem to ‘lose control’ in the evenings then it can be useful to first understand what might be triggering this.
If you skip meals or limit your food intake throughout the day, whether that is intentional or not, this can make you more likely to binge at the end of the day.
This has been backed up by numerous studies, some of which go as far back as World War II, where prisoners of war who were starved and limited in their food intake were found to be more likely to binge eat compared to combat veterans who didn’t experience such restrictions (2).
More recent research examining the correlation between caloric restriction and binge eating supports this idea as they found self-reported dietary restriction was predictive of binge eating episodes (3).
If you’re not eating satisfying meals, for example, denying yourself of what you really want, not taking the time to enjoy your meals or not eating a variety of foods, you’ll naturally seek out more food even if you’re not hungry.
One study exploring the relationship between weight-related shame, guilt, intuitive eating and binge eating found that weight-related shame and guilt were linked to binge eating behaviours, whereas intuitive eating acted as a protective factor against these behaviours (4).
As mentioned earlier, many people turn to food as a temporary distraction from difficult emotions.
This can happen when you’re feeling stressed, angry, sad, bored, or even lonely. This is a very human response and a valid way of self-soothing, but it can cause issues if it’s the only strategy in your self-care toolkit.
Our levels of the ‘fullness hormone’ leptin tend to decrease, while our levels of ‘hunger hormone’ ghrelin increase in the evening, leading to increased hunger and cravings.
Lack of sleep can also mess with our hunger hormones making us feel more hungry and could lead to a nighttime binge.
One study that looked at how time of day and stress affect appetite discovered that ghrelin levels were higher in the evening, especially when the participants were stressed, making the evening a high-risk period for overeating or bingeing (5).
Other common reported emotional triggers include sadness, anger, loneliness and boredom. Read more about how sleep and stress affects hunger hormones here.
Strategies for Managing Night Binges
The techniques used to address and overcome nighttime binge eating are designed to target the triggers that cause it.
Regular Eating Schedule
Eating regular meals and snacks throughout the day no more than 3-4 hours apart can help to avoid becoming too hungry at night. Also, the knowledge that you will eat again soon will help keep you calm and reduce the urge to binge.
Reducing trigger foods or exposure to triggering situations can be helpful in the short term to prevent binge eating, but in the long term, it’s important to work towards reducing any dietary restrictions. This can be a challenging process and something you may need to support with from a professional.
Trigger foods are often triggering because they tend to be ‘forbidden foods’, but slowly reintroducing them into your diet can help you become more comfortable with them until the point where they won’t prompt you to binge anymore.
It can be helpful to create a list of these ‘forbidden’ or ‘trigger’ foods, ranking them from most triggering to the least and starting with reintroducing some of your least triggering foods first.
This process is called habituation and involves repeated exposure to a stimulus (in this case, a trigger food), which can decrease your response to it over time. For example, one small study in women found that daily exposure to mac and cheese was effective in guarding against overeating mac and cheese in the long-term (6).
Alternative Coping Mechanisms
If nighttime binges are a result of emotions, it can help to identify other strategies to cope with difficult emotions.
One helpful approach is to shift your focus from your shape and weight and instead place more importance on other areas of your life. This can be achieved by creating a list of enjoyable activities that you can engage in such as art classes, meeting new people, meditation, or incorporating joyful movement..
It’s also essential to have small, realistic coping mechanisms that may be available to you during an emotional moment.
These could be as simple as taking 10 deep breaths, noticing every colour in the room, stepping outside, journalling, calling a loved one etc.
Self-Soothing After a Binge Occurs
Self soothing after a binge can be difficult but there are things you can do to ease the discomfort.
Building a support network by reaching out to friends or family who understand can be a great place to start.
Additionally, something like journaling can be a powerful tool for processing emotions and identifying and acknowledging your triggers. Self-soothing can also include taking a warm bath or shower, wearing comfy clothes or engaging in gentle movement like yoga or stretching.
Ultimately, finding the self-soothing strategy or strategies that work for you will help you develop a personalised toolkit to ensure you can navigate difficult emotions and situations and reduce the frequency of bingeing.
Once you have mastered some of the strategies above, it can be helpful to look into mindful eating, which can be a powerful tool in preventing binge eating at night time. Mindful eating involves being present and fully engaged with the experience of eating, such as focusing on the taste, smell, and texture of food.
Studies have shown that mindfulness-based interventions can effectively reduce the frequency of binge eating episodes (7).
By paying attention to your body’s hunger and satiety cues and eating slowly, you can become more attuned to your body’s needs and feel more satisfied with your meal, ultimately reducing the urge to overeat.
It can be helpful to work with a therapist or dietitian that specialises in disordered eating who can be there to provide guidance and support alongside some of these other strategies
Managing nighttime binges or emotional eating can feel like a monumental task if you don’t know where to start.
But fear not; understanding and recognising the triggers that lead to these behaviours can help you gain control of your disordered eating patterns.
With the right tools and support, it is possible to kick these habits to the curb and develop a healthier relationship with food.
- Berkman ND, Brownley KA, Peat CM, et al. Management and Outcomes of Binge-Eating Disorder [Internet]. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2015 Dec. (Comparative Effectiveness Reviews, No. 160.) Table 1, DSM-IV and DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for binge-eating disorder.
- Polivy, J. et al. (1994) “Food restriction and binge eating: A study of former prisoners of war.,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103(2), pp. 409–411. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843x.103.2.409.
- Zunker, C. et al. (2011) “Ecological momentary assessment of bulimia nervosa: Does dietary restriction predict binge eating?,” Behaviour Research and Therapy, 49(10), pp. 714–717. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2011.06.006.
- Craven, M.P. and Fekete, E.M. (2019) “Weight-related shame and guilt, intuitive eating, and binge eating in female college students,” Eating Behaviors, 33, pp. 44–48. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2019.03.002.
- Carnell, S. et al. (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, 42(4), pp. 841–849. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2017.307.
- Epstein, L.H. et al. (2011) “Long-term habituation to food in obese and nonobese women,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 94(2), pp. 371–376. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.110.009035.
- Godfrey, K.M., Gallo, L.C. and Afari, N. (2014) “Mindfulness-based interventions for binge eating: A systematic review and meta-analysis,” Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 38(2), pp. 348–362. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-014-9610-5.