If someone is eating unusually large amounts of food at night, could it represent an eating disorder unique from bulimia and binge eating disorder? We often associate binge eating with evenings/night, in part, because it’s a time when people are in a private space and trying to relax or cope with the struggles of the day. This makes it complicated to distinguish between binge eating disorder, general emotional eating, and night eating syndrome, a related eating disorder with recent research support.
The defining characteristic for people with night eating syndrome is that they consume at least 25% of their daily calories after dinner and/or wake up in the middle of the night to eat at least twice a week.
Night eating syndrome is not nearly as well researched as bulimia and binge eating disorder. While bulimia nervosa has been an official eating disorder for decades and binge eating disorder is expected to become an official eating disorder next year, night eating syndrome is unlikely to be given it’s own diagnosis in the DSM (official diagnostic manual for all mental health disorders) anytime soon.
A new study released online this month sought to distinguish night eating syndrome from other eating disorders. Researchers in Switzerland analyzed over 1500 online surveys completed by young adults (ages 18-26). Based on questions about eating patterns, the researchers categorized groups of people into healthy eating or showing symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, obesity, or night eating syndrome. Unlike some other eating disorder studies, the researchers included both men and women, but still neglected to include a wide age range of adults (like older adults who we know are affected by binge eating)
The study found that 1.3% of all participates met criteria for night eating syndrome. Within that group, 15% of people with night eating also met criteria for binge eating while 10% also met criteria for bulimia. While there was clearly some overlap between night eating and bulimia/binge eating, the study suggests that a small percentage of the population would meet criteria for night eating syndrome independent of other eating disorders.
Compared to people with bulimia or binge eating, people with night eating showed less concern with their bodies, eating, and weight. While there was a strong difference in these classic eating disorder symptoms, there weren’t any socioeconomic differences between people with night eating versus binge eating or bulimia.
Many "new" types of eating disorders are described in popular media reports, but the scientific research to support these types is often weak. Night eating syndrome which seems closely related to binge eating disorder on the surface, may be a unique eating disorder, but the it will take many more years of research to better define it and test out treatments.
Dr. Gupta is a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University and provides individual therapy atTribeca Psychology
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