The Dark Truth About Night Eating Syndrome (NES) and What You Can Do About It.
By: Michelle Cleary, LCSW
I started night eating - in the morning. I was about 7 years old. I can vividly remember waking up in the wee hours while everyone was still sound asleep and constructing sandwiches made up of unevenly cut tomatoes and gobs of mayonnaise that were precariously placed in between two slices of Wonder white bread - a 7 year old’s interpretation of a BLT, only without the L and the B. I would head into the living room, switch on the TV, and get lost in 4am programming while secretly and shamelessly enjoying my “T” sandwich.
That is my earliest memory of night eating. It came and went as I grew up. Months and even years of sound sleeping were interrupted by periods of night eating. These episodes were erratic at first but as I approached my mid-twenties they became more consistent. At the height of it all I was waking up 4-6 times a night, for weeks at a time. It was exhausting, embarrassing, and baffling.
These nocturnal binges intensified as the years went on. My innocent “T” sandwiches were replaced with cookies, leftover pizza, baked ziti, ice cream, Entenmann's products, bread with butter, etc. I would eat what my self control or shame didn’t allow me to eat during the day. At night there was no such thing as portion control, I would have seconds, thirds, and fourths. When it got dark there were no limits, there was no shame, and there was no guilt… until the morning came.
Oh God, the morning. When the night eating was in full swing the mornings were torturous. With barely one eye opened, trying to secure enough consciousness to make it to the coffee pot, I would see the plates and cups and wrappers on the nightstand. Not unlike discovering a stranger in your bed after a wild night out, I would start to put together the pieces of the puzzle. That horrible “what the hell did I do last night??” feeling would surface and the memories of unbridled eating would emerge. Sometimes they were vivid and clear other times they were hazy and incomplete but they were always accompanied by bullying feelings of shame, guilt, anger and helplessness.
The morning brought a ruing that could only be alleviated with desperate promises. Negotiations and assurances ran through my head. I won’t eat for the rest of the day, I’ll go straight to the gym after work, I’ll workout for 2 hours, I will eat perfectly for the rest of the week, I will NOT do this again. These vows clung to my leg. I dragged them through my apartment while I got ready, ran out the door, and stepped into my life.
I was physically and emotionally exhausted before I even left the house.
Over the years I tried everything to stop my nocturnal noshing. From going to a sleep disorder clinic to taking anti depressants; from locking the refrigerator with a chain, to locking myself in my room; from hanging notes to myself in the kitchen, to hanging the clothes I hoped to one day wear in the kitchen, but nothing worked for more than a night or two. I felt defeated and lost.
Why did I do this? It didn’t make any sense. I knew I didn’t want to eat at night but no matter how hard I tried to control it, it kept happening. Why was I waking up?
The answer is I was struggling with Night Eating Syndrome (NES). Those who suffer from Night Eating Syndrome eat excessively during the nighttime hours and feel a lack of control over their eating. Guilt, embarrassment, distress, and limited food intake in the morning follow episodes of night eating. They are awake, aware, and have memory of what they are doing, unlike those who have Sleep Related Eating Disorder (SRED), who are asleep and do not remember the eating episodes.
After years of professional experience and my own personal therapy, digging around in my subconscious and excavating my past, I discovered a lot about NES. Here is some of the dark truth about night eating and what you can do to start getting it under control:
• You actually want to eat at night. Hard to believe, huh? I know! But it’s true. There is a very real and very powerful “part” of you that wants to eat, without restriction, without guilt, without shame, and without control. We all have “parts” and they can be referred to as subpersonalities, self-states, inner selves, etc. It doesn’t matter what you call them, they are there. Very simply put, these parts are psychic representations of different times and emotional chapters in your life. We slip in and out of these states throughout the day but at night they can be particularly powerful. The cold hard reality is that you have a “part” that wants to eat at night.
• You can’t lock it up. I, and if you are reading this article probably you too, have tried almost everything to stop this behavior without success. And the reason there has been little success is that you can’t stop it, lock it up, or destroy it. Since it is you who wants to eat … you can never successfully lock it up! There is a built in escape route or trap door that the “you” who wants to eat will always have the key for. The more you try to stifle it the more intense it will eventually get.
• You can’t convince it. The “you” who wants to eat uncontrollably cannot be convinced to stop eating with promises of skinny jeans and tank tops. That “you” doesn’t care about the numbers. That part doesn’t care about the numbers on the scale or the array of numbers on clothing tags or the number of calories you are consuming
• You must take care of it. So what do you do to get the you’s working together and sleeping through the night? The first and most important step you need to take is be kind and gentle with the part that wants to eat. Even though you have probably spent much of your life hating this part you will have to change your tune and start to work with this part and not against it.
• Talk to it: The best way to start reducing the intensity and frequency of night eating is to talk to the part that wants to eat. Before you go to bed and before the self state switch … talk to yourself, talk to that part. I know it sounds weird but the first step is to acknowledge and then nurture. When you are brushing your teeth before bed or getting changed try something like this: “I know you are there and I know you want to eat tonight. You are thinking about the leftover pizza aren’t you? I just want you to know I’m not going to be angry at you in the morning. You are not bad. Instead of me fighting and feeling helpless maybe we can work together.” Although this feels counterintuitive, this type of inner dialogue will help to reduce the resistance between your parts and begin the process of integration.
Here is some more dark truth. This is just the beginning. In order for you to get real control over your eating at night you are going to have to learn a lot more about yourself and all of your parts. This does not go away immediately and it takes a while to get to the root of the issues. However, it works. Finding a therapist who has experience working with eating disorders is the first step, commitment to the therapeutic process is the next.