Why Your Night Eating Has Surged in the Pandemic

by | Jul 6, 2021 | Disordered Eating

It’s after dinner when you need a taste of something sweet – or maybe you’re a salty person. The kids are in bed, no-one’s watching, you’ve been “good” all day – you didn’t even eat anything until lunchtime. Why not just a snack size packet of chips? But that doesn’t quite do it, so you have another. And then you’re away, opening packet after packet until they’re all gone.

Maybe for you, it’s the automatic 8:30pm reach for the chocolate biscuits at the top of the cupboard while making a decaf or tea. Perhaps you’ve got nothing “naughty” in the house left, so now you’re just eating cereal, in front of the TV. You started the day eating well but you finished it with a bang, yet again!

These scenarios are probably not exactly you. For you, it may not feel manic, you might mix in TV or drinking, and it may not be every night, but something about these stories might feel a little familiar.

If you have noticed that the habit seems worse than it used to be – night eating is happening more often, and the quantities are getting bigger, along with the guilt and self-loathing – you aren’t alone. It’s gotten worse for a lot of people since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

I’ll tell you why – but first, let’s talk about Night-time Eating.

What is Night Eating?

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When you just can’t stop regularly eating at night after dinner, and it’s affecting your weight and your self-esteem.

There are different types of overeating behaviours at night.

#1. Daytime starvation – when you don’t provide your body with adequate nourishment throughout the day, it will biologically drive you to replenish energy needs at night. It is not fussy! Your body needs to take in as many calories as possible, to make up for the deficit during the day, and the way that this is accomplished is usually with junk food.

#2. Night-time Overeating – usually occurs in response to Stress and the psychological and biological need to relax. This is commonly found in parents who wait until everyone is in bed and then they have some ‘quiet or down-time’ before going to bed. Sneaking and hiding food can be a part of this behaviour.

#3. Night Eating Syndrome – this condition combines overeating at night with sleep problems. It’s associated with insomnia, anxiety, depressed mood, sleep-wake and appetite irregularities. Some people believe that they cannot fall asleep without eating and may even wake throughout the night and eat.

All eating at night behaviours can lead to weight gain, obesity, and health concerns.

Happily, it’s something you can overcome with changes to your eating and sleeping habits, daily routines, self-care and learning to improve your mindset, emotional awareness and coping strategies.

COVID-19 is a Triggering Event for Binge Eating At Night

External triggers for night eating behaviours, stress triggers night eating
As with any form of disordered eating behaviour or eating disorder, there are small and large triggers that result in the behaviours.

Stressors such as significant life events and hormonal disturbances, which affect our beliefs and perceptions of self-identity, can trigger an episode of night-time binge eating behaviour. Changing beliefs about your identity, security, and safety can play a strong role in flare ups and lulls in night-time eating behaviours.

A research article by F. Diane Barth explains that even small transitions experienced in the sense of self can act as triggers for eating-related symptoms. For example, Sunday night anticipation of the Monday morning shift from ‘weekend self’ to ‘working week self’, a transition of identity involved in a new haircut, or a return to a previous version of ‘self’ when visiting family.

In identifying COVID-19 as a time of ongoing and, in some ways, life-altering transition, the pandemic is a perfect trigger for a return to a core set of self-beliefs searching for stability and certainty – a return to the “night eater” self of the past or amplification. The familiarity of night eating is soothing and comforting during a time of turmoil and uncertainty.

It’s Not Just You – Binge Eating at Night Is Affecting a Lot of People

The American Psychological Association emphasises the importance of recognising the legitimate physical and environmental factors that the pandemic has created, which have caused weight gain. Rather than self-recrimination and blame for lack of self-control and willpower, consider external contributors to night eating triggers:

  • reduced access to familiar or healthy food options during lockdowns (whether self or state-imposed) and stock shortages;
  • increased screen time at home, due to working and studying from home, which encourages snacking;
  • situational stressors such as general pandemic anxiety, home-schooling, loss of childcare networks, family tension leading to reward-eating;
  • reduced access to exercise options, and
  • decreased social connection and outlets for stress reduction.

Letting Go of Night Eating

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The comforting takeaway to all this is that a night-time eating flare ups and weight gain during the pandemic is nothing to be ashamed of, is a shared experience, and is manageable. By addressing your beliefs and habits through identifying your values to find your stable core ‘self’ during times of change, and approaching eating habits mindfully, you can manage changes small and large – even pandemic sized ones – to achieve your health goals.

If you are struggling and need support, we are here for you.

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