Binge eating at night is a common topic for my clients and I. They know it’s happening, they know they “shouldn’t” be doing it, but binge eating seems to have power over them. I even have clients tell me, “Shelby, I’m an intelligent person. I don’t understand why I can’t stop this!” It is extremely frustrating, shameful, confusing, and sometimes physically painful.
Why Do I Overeat at Night?
First, let’s get clarity on if you are overeating or if you are binge eating at night as these are two different behaviors. Simply put,
Binge Eating Is an Industrial-Strength Overeating Episode
The biggest difference between overeating and binge eating is the power and energy behind the binge. Binge eating is often associated with the term “compulsive eating” because it feels more powerful than us and often overpowers us. It is a NEGATIVE energy. A true binge derives from a physiological stress response caused by emotional, nutritional, or lifestyle factors. No one sits on the couch, happily watching movies, and says, “I think I’ll binge!”. Sure one can get lost on the couch, watching movies, and mindlessly overeat. But a binge is a whole other story.
When your body is in a physiologic stress response, it thinks “something’s wrong!” and instinctually enters a fight, flight, or freeze response, but you also can enter what’s called a “feed response.” When your physiology senses that your life is being threatened by not enough food, food restriction, macronutrient imbalance, lack of pleasure or experience — the brain DRIVES you to eat. Binge eating is literally a survival urge, not a lack of willpower, and can be any frequency, time, amount, and any food.
As painful as binge eating can be, however, it always has a brilliant reason for its existence, rooted somewhere in science, psychology, or both. What could be driving your binge eating at night, or any time for that matter?
When trying to lose weight or while living our fears of food and weight gain, we have a high level of control over our food amount, type, and pleasure. This can lead to nutrient deficiency, calorie deficiency, blood sugar dysregulation, brain chemistry imbalance, and ravenous hunger, which activates the stress response and can lead to binge eating to ensure you eat and survive. On a simple level, binge eating is oftentimes a necessary nutritional correction. Therefore, a binge is seen as an “out of control” behavior, which is a balancing act for a place in life where we’re in “tight control.”
Meal Frequency & Not Eating Enough
Artificially skipping meals because of fear of food, fear of hunger, fear of weight gain, or lack of interest in eating can oftentimes cause overeating or binge eating later in the day. Skipping meals can activate the stress response because the brain and body will not be denied. The body has a bio-circadian nutrition rhythm, just like it has sleep and heartbeat circadian rhythms. When your meal frequency is arhythmic, your body can become stressed and provoke binge eating to secure your survival. In our minds, however, we think there’s something wrong with us because we can’t control our appetite. But the reality is simple: we skipped meals or did not eat enough in the first half of your day, and your body is demanding more food and more nutrition.
Food is literally designed to give us this psycho-physiological need called pleasure. Why? So you eat and don’t die. Period. So, to survive, pleasure from food is very important to our brain and body, and they require it! If we miss the experience of taste, pleasure, satisfaction, etc. — the brain interprets this missed experience as HUNGER. In other words, if you rushed through a meal and failed to notice it for whatever your reason, the brain isn’t smart enough to say, “Hey, you were in a rush and not paying attention to your food.” The brain simply says, “Hungry.”
We are literally physiologically driven to eat more, even if we’ve eaten a huge meal. The brain commands us to eat if it doesn’t get what it needs — the eating experience.
The simple act of eating fast is considered a stressor by the body. If we were hunter-gatherers and eating extremely fast, the brain interprets this once again as “something’s wrong!” and goes on full alert. Therefore when you eat fast, you naturally digest and absorb nutrients poorly, resulting in lack of pleasure in a meal. So once again, the brain will primitively call for more food, another simple and necessary nutritional correction.
It cannot be denied that another top factor behind binge eating may not have anything to do with nutritional stressors at all. Remember, when stressed, the body can enter a fight, flight, freeze, OR feed response because binge eating is an “out of control” behavior, which is a balancing act for a place in life where we’re in “tight control.” If this place of tight control is in your work, relationships, finances, or other, and we aren’t finding alternative balancing acts to help you relax and step out of the stress response, binge eating can fulfill this role. To add, when you eat during stressful times, in order to digest food, at some point, the body MUST relax. Over time your brain learns, Feel Bad = Eat Food = Feel Better, creating a lovely automated conditioned response during stressful times.
How Can I Stop Cravings at Night That Make Me Want To Binge?
Now that you understand what may be causing your binge eating, here are my top recommendations to help you reduce your powerful cravings at night and compulsions:
- Focus on shifting your eating intentions to be more like a pendulum versus a yo-yo. Meaning, instead of operating at a high-level food control of “all-out” or “black or white,” “good vs. bad” with your eating, approach your eating to be more like a clock pendulum, where the arc of your pendulum is small and swaying softly from side to side. For example, instead of cutting sugar 100% with no exceptions or you fail and fall off the wagon 100% (yo-yo), try finding a softer arc in your eating by setting goals such as reducing your sugar by 85% vs. 100%, so your eating behaviors reduce in extremes and have a higher chance of growing into healthy, sustainable habits.
- Be intentional about setting time aside to eat to reduce nutrient-deficient driven binge eating episodes.
- Enjoy what you eat. Aim to feel good after the meal than before you started, rather than stressing about being good. Remember, pleasure is innate and a necessary nutritional requirement!
- Take some deep breaths before eating. Try to create a calm space where you focus on your meal, your senses, yourself, and enjoy the eating experience. Shut off the phone, work email, or other distractions when possible.
- Take small moments for yourself every day to slow down. 5-10 minutes here and there throughout the day to say YES to you can have a profound positive impact on your stress levels and reduce the risk of binge eating.
- If necessary, to help lower stress put your objective hat on: Where can I delegate? Who can I ask for help? What do I need to improve with my time management? Where do I need to set boundaries or say no to? What is something joyful outside of eating that I could do for myself this week to help my body and mind relax?
Notice how binge eating is NOT a will power issue — rather, it’s an amazing strategy of the body. Binge eating gets our attention in a BIG way. It is asking you to dig deeper, ask good questions, explore nutritional and emotional dimensions, get real with ourselves, and perhaps face your fears. Sometimes it can be complex, other times simple in solution and can be worked with, listened to, and transformed without the use of pharmaceuticals.
Though binge eating occurs as too powerful or it exerts power over you, power is good, and changes form within us. Think of the craving as an energy; it’s calling for your attention. What is it that it might be trying to tell you? The reveal of a negative power such as binge eating means there is POSITIVE power calling to be unleashed. I hope this article helps you begin to see binge eating in a whole new light! If you need help understanding your binge eating and transforming its power back into your life, we are here for you! When it comes to ourselves, it is always the hardest work because we are in deep with the struggle. Please book a Breakthrough Clarity Call if you are ready to free yourself from binge eating for good!