A fairly rare eating
disorder whose signature is excessive
eating – though not necessarily binging – at night needs further study
since it may signal other mental health issues, researchers say.
They analysed eating disorders and mental health history in
more than 1 600 university students and found about 4% met night eating
disorder criteria, with about a third of those also engaging in binge
eating. "Night eating syndrome is characterized not only by eating at night – certainly many college students might have a late night study fest with
eating – but it's also characterized by other things, like feeling that you can't
eat in the morning, and feeling like you have to eat in order to go back to
sleep," Dr Rebecka Peebles told Reuters Health.
ignorant about poor diet and disease
Night eating vs. binge eating
Peebles, the study's senior author, is an attending
physician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and a researcher in the
department of Paediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University
of Pennsylvania. "Our study helped extend findings of previous studies that
have not been controlling for binge eating," Peebles said.
"We know that binge
eating and night eating have a pretty moderate overlap so a lot of people
who come into the clinic for night eating often have binge
eating. We think night eating is something to be aware of even
though it only occurs in just under 3% of the students after controlling for
binge eating, so it's still a pretty important entity," Peebles said.
Distinguishing night eating from binge eating is important,
Peebles and her colleagues write in the Journal of Adolescent Health, for
several reasons. Night eating may require a different treatment approach than
other eating disorders, which could also be present.
Night eating was also more common in students with a history
nervosa and in students taking ADHD
medications, they report, so those other disorders may play a role in the
nighttime eating syndrome.
'Grazing' rather than binging
Night eating disorder is a distinct diagnosis in the newest
psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), the researchers note.
The syndrome is often characterised by increased appetite at
night, but usually takes the form of "grazing" on food all evening,
rather than intensive binging, and also may include waking up in the night to
Often the urge to eat is tied to the feeling it that it will
improve sleep or allow the person to get back to sleep.
The authors said that young adults tend to eat more at night
and college students who are stressed and have inconsistent sleep patterns may
be at risk for night eating. But most previous research on the subject has been
limited to small groups and has failed to adjust for the overlap of binge
eating disorder among night eaters.
To get a sense of how common night eating disorder is and
what other traits or risk factors go along with it, the researchers analysed
data from a large 2008 survey of students in 10 US universities.
Loss of control
A total of 1 636 students were included in the new analysis.
About 60% were young women and 74% were white. About 60% of the students were
also competitive athletes.
The online survey included information on height and weight,
plus four questionnaires focused on night eating, eating disorders in general
and health-related quality of life. Scores on the Night Eating Questionnaire
(NEQ) were used to diagnose night eating disorder.
Binge eating was also measured by students' reports of details
such as a feeling of loss of control over eating. Recurrent binge eating was
defined as binge eating large amounts of food at least four times during the
A total of 67 respondents (4.2%) met the criteria for night
eating syndrome. They were also more likely than other students to have other
eating-disorder behaviours such as excessive laxative use, compulsive exercise
and purging, as well as lower quality of life. Another 222 students (14%)
appeared to be binge eaters.
Of the 67 students with night eating syndrome, 22 were also
binge eaters. Excluding the binge eaters from the group of students with night
eating syndrome reduced the prevalence of night eating to 2.9%.
Eating throughout the night
A history of
depression and self-injuring was more common among those with night eating
disorder. "I think it's important to know that it affects both men and
women and also all races and ethnicities," Cristin Runfola told Reuters
Runfola, a researcher with the University of North Carolina Centre
for Excellence for Eating Disorders, led the study. The study showed that night
eating syndrome was also associated with other eating disorder behaviours that
could lead to serious physical and psychological consequences, she said.
It's important that people with night eating syndrome get
help, Runfola said, adding that parents and friends can spot signs of night
eating in young adults. "You might see fluctuations in weight or you might
notice food missing in the house," she said. "Often these people
are eating throughout the night," she added.
"They might even be waking up and feeding multiple
times throughout the night, so if you're frequently hearing that someone's
getting out of bed throughout the night and you're noticing that food is
missing there might be something going on."
tired people eat more
and cool drinks: small habits cause weight creep(Picture: Teen eating undercovers from Shutterstock)