They analyzed eating disorders and mental health
history in more than 1,600 university students and found about 4
percent met night eating disorder criteria, with about a third of
those also engaging in binge eating.
"Night eating syndrome is characterized not only by eating at night — certainly many college students might have a late night study fest
with eating — but it's also characterized by other things, like
feeling that you can't eat in the morning, and feeling like you have
to eat in order to go back to sleep," Dr. Rebecka Peebles told
Peebles, the study's senior author, is an attending physician at the
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and a researcher in the
department of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the
University of Pennsylvania.
"Our study helped extend findings of previous studies that have not
been controlling for binge eating," Peebles said. "We know that
binge eating and night eating have a pretty moderate overlap so a
lot of people who come into the clinic for night eating often have
"We think night eating is something to be aware of even though it
only occurs in just under 3 percent of the students after
controlling for binge eating, so it's still a pretty important
entity," Peebles said.
Distinguishing night eating from binge eating is important, Peebles
and her colleagues write in the Journal of Adolescent Health, for
several reasons. Night eating may require a different treatment
approach than other eating disorders, which could also be present.
Night eating was also more common in students with a history of
anorexia nervosa and in students taking ADHD medications, they
report, so those other disorders may play a role in the nighttime
Night eating disorder is a distinct diagnosis in the newest
psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), the
The syndrome is often characterized by increased appetite at night,
but usually takes the form of "grazing" on food all evening, rather
than intensive binging, and also may include waking up in the night
Often the urge to eat is tied to the feeling it that it will improve
sleep or allow the person to get back to sleep.
The authors said that young adults tend to eat more at night and
college students who are stressed and have inconsistent sleep
patterns may be at risk for night eating.
But most previous research on the subject has been limited to small
groups and has failed to adjust for the overlap of binge eating
disorder among night eaters.
To get a sense of how common night eating disorder is and what other
traits or risk factors go along with it, the researchers analyzed
data from a large 2008 survey of students in 10 U.S. universities.
A total of 1,636 students were included in the new analysis. About
60 percent were young women and 74 percent were white. About 60
percent of the students were also competitive athletes.
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The online survey included information on height and weight, plus
four questionnaires focused on night eating, eating disorders in
general and health-related quality of life. Scores on the Night
Eating Questionnaire (NEQ) were used to diagnose night eating
Binge eating was also measured by students' reports of details such
as a feeling of loss of control over eating. Recurrent binge eating
was defined as binge eating large amounts of food at least four
times during the previous month.
A total of 67 respondents (4.2 percent) met the criteria for
night eating syndrome. They were also more likely than other
students to have other eating-disorder behaviors such as excessive
laxative use, compulsive exercise and purging, as well as lower
quality of life. Another 222 students (14 percent) appeared to be
Of the 67 students with night eating syndrome, 22 were also binge
eaters. Excluding the binge eaters from the group of students with
night eating syndrome reduced the prevalence of night eating to 2.9
A history of depression and self-injuring was more common among
those with night eating disorder.
"I think it's important to know that it affects both men and women
and also all races and ethnicities," Cristin Runfola told Reuters
Runfola, a researcher with the University of North Carolina Center
for Excellence for Eating Disorders, led the study.
The study showed that night eating syndrome was also associated
with other eating disorder behaviors that could lead to serious
physical and psychological consequences, she said.
It's important that people with night eating syndrome get help,
Runfola said, adding that parents and friends can spot signs of
night eating in young adults.
"You might see fluctuations in weight or you might notice food
missing in the house," she said.
"Oftentimes these people are eating throughout the night," she
added. "They might even be waking up and feeding multiple times
throughout the night, so if you're frequently hearing that someone's
getting out of bed throughout the night and you're noticing that
food is missing there might be something going on."
Journal of Adolescent Health, online Feb. 3, 2014.
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