It’s typical to get the night time munchies during a good movie at home or when watching television. It’s also common for college students to munch on pre-packaged foods late into the night. But new research suggests there might be more to night eating, which the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recognizes as when individuals feel compelled to eat throughout the evening, and often all through the night.
University of North Carolina researcher Cristin Runfola led a study that analyzed the eating and mental health history of 1,636 college students from 10 universities. Through online health questionnaires the research team discovered differences between night eating and binge eating including their symptoms, effects and risks for mental health. Although only 4.2 percent of the study participants were diagnosed with night eating, Runfola believes that this distinctive eating disorder could offer insight into the link between eating disorders and other mental health issues.
Differences Between Night Eating and Binge Eating
While binge eating involves eating a large quantity of food in a short period of time, night eating is more a process of grazing through the evening hours and even throughout the early morning hours when most people are asleep. People diagnosed with night eating have an increased appetite later in the evening, believing that filling their stomachs with food will help them sleep better.
In the study, individuals with night eating disorder tended to have a higher rate of some mental health disorders than those who were only binge eating. Twenty-two of the 67 participants who had night eating disorder also had a binge eating disorder. Individuals with only night eating disorder had a higher rate of having depression and anorexia nervosa. The participants who were taking attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medication also were more likely to have night eating disorder.
Students who were night eating were also more likely than other students to partake in purging their body of food by using laxatives or vomiting, and they were more likely to exercise compulsively. Even though they exercised rigorously and tried to purge their body of the food they had eaten, they were found to have a poorer quality of life than students who didn’t have night eating disorder.
Signs of Night Eating
Parents, spouses and friends can watch for some signs that an individual may have a night eating disorder. Who is at risk of night eating? Individuals who have sleep problems and/or stress problems may be at risk for night eating and may exhibit the following symptoms:
- Frequently waking in the middle of the night to eat, sometimes multiple times a night
- Frequent fluctuations in weight loss and gain.
Even if some family and friends do not notice these signs, they may notice that frequently food that was in the refrigerator at night is missing in the morning.
While night eating may not be a common eating disorder, Runfola and her team believes it’s an eating disorder that should be monitored. Because it may resemble typical night time snacking by teens or young adults, it also may be overlooked.
More research on night eating may offer greater insight into its relationship with other mental health disorders, and could reduce the risks.