While millions of people will admit to feeling guilty about their eating behavior, some people feel so much shame, they try to hide their consumption under cover of darkness.
Individuals with night-eating syndrome have difficulty staying asleep at night. They get up several times during the night to eat, but generally they don't enjoy these splurges; rather, they feel tremendous guilt and shame.
A person with night-eating syndrome tends to consume high-carbohydrate foods during the night, and then avoids food during the day to make up for it. The cycle begins again after dinner or bedtime.
It's believed that about 10 percent of obese individuals suffer from night-eating syndrome, but you don't have to be obese to have the problem. Studies have suggested there may be abnormal levels of melatonin (which is supposed to accompany sleep) and leptin (which suppresses hunger) in night eaters. Whether these are causes or effects, however, is not known.
There are some types of people who are more prone to developing the problem:
• Frequent rigid dieters who try to avoid eating during the day in order to lose weight.
• Students or shift workers who frequently are awake and eating at night.
• People with eating disorders who try to hide their eating.
• People with insomnia.
Guilt and shame are often associated with night-eating syndrome, because sufferers feel that they have no self-control, and that what they do is abnormal. Since they believe they must make up for their night eating by depriving themselves during the day, the secretiveness extends to daytime eating also.
In many cases, the individual has suffered in secret for years. A patient I'll call Linda, a middle-aged wife and mother, finally sought help after suffering with the problem since adolescence. "I could never tell anyone what I do," she said. "I feel horribly stupid and abnormal. Why can't I just stop?"
Night-eating syndrome needs to be looked at both psychologically and physiologically, if it is to be resolved. These are some steps necessary for recovery:
• Stop compensating. Eating normally and healthfully during the day, regardless of what happened at night, is extremely important to restore the body's psychological and physiological balance. Most treatment involves having the individual start eating breakfast again and having healthy, small meals throughout the day. By skipping meals and depriving yourself of food during the day, the body has little choice but to push you to eat some other way. If you feed your body properly, eating and sleep patterns will start to normalize.
• Don't miss the forest by focusing on the trees. Night eating is a symptom, not the root problem. The underlying issue may be a problem with depression and/or anxiety that needs treatment.
• Have the courage to seek help. Some things are too difficult for us to take care of alone. Getting help will speed up the time it will take to solve the problem. Make sure you choose a qualified professional, however. You might start by asking your family doctor for a referral.
• Stop self-blame. It's important to understand that your physiology and habits require time to change permanently. These are complex issues. Appreciate all the little successes. They will add up, before you know it, to recovery. Blaming yourself will only add to the cyclical problem by making you feel depressed and defeated. Compassion is a much better approach to a difficult problem. It gives us motivation to go forward, whereas blame stops us in our tracks.
Night-eating syndrome is serious, but it can be changed. The first steps are giving yourself a break from guilt and shame, stepping back to get a better perspective, and reaching out for solutions.
Lavinia Rodriguez, Ph.D., is a Tampa clinical psychologist who specializes in weight management. She can be reached at (813) 240-9557 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her book, "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management," is available at FatMatters.com.