For as long as I can remember I have been prone to snacking at night. Whether it’s watching a movie, binging on new tv show or playing on the computer, it’s always been with crisps, chocolate, biscuits or some other form of food. The thing is, the eating at night was never due to being hungry. It was more about satisfying some sort of mental need as opposed to physical. It was almost like alleviating boredom.
Although I am partly talking in the past tense this is still an issue I deal with now, and the subject came up in conversation with friends recently when one of my friends described feeling this way and their description felt very similar to my own experiences. As the group of us talked about it a bit more, we came to realise that we all suffer with this to varying degrees. The discussion also triggered a memory I had of a little article I read some months before about a very specific form of binge eating that only took place at night.
I’ve been thinking about NES a little more in recent months as I’ve been attempting to lose weight. I’ve hit a bit of a brick wall with it in recent weeks after excellent progress since November 2015. The frustrating thing is that I generally eat a healthy breakfast and eat well throughout the day. Once it gets to early evening though, the floodgates can open.
It is important to draw a distinction between NES and binge eating. The two are not the same and, despite my earlier description, NES is not simply binge eating at night. Here is a brief definition of the two disorders according to Wikipedia and the NHS;
With NES the amount of food consumed in the evening does not necessarily have to be large. According to the information I’ve read, NES is more common in those who are obese. Establishing cause and effect here could be difficult and possibly controversial. Too often the general public will jump to conclusions based on correlations. Yes, it could be that obese people are obese partly because of NES and the consumption of excess calories at night. An alternative view could be that obese people suffer from depression and eat to feel better, and that eating comes at a time when they are generally out of the public eye.
There are apparently links between depression, feelings of guilt and shame, and NES. However, once again proving causality is very difficult. Like with many mental health disorders, we are still only beginning to understand their true nature. NES does not appear to be a binary disorder in which you either have it or you do not. Most mental health conditions work on a spectrum with people at points across the entire continuum.
I think the food industry in the western world has a lot of responsibility for the inevitable health crisis that will be caused by obesity. Would NES be as severe if good, healthy food was readily available at a low price? Somehow I doubt it. When you can buy a six pack of crips for a pound, and then consume the best part of a thousand calories in a few minutes of crisp eating, there is something wrong with the food industry. When the person in question is not able to fully control their eating habits, they are at the mercy of the food industry. Some simple calculations for you to consider; a 30g pack of crisps will normally have around 140 calories. Three chocolate digestives will have about 240 calories. A mars bar will have 230 calories. On a typical evening, the NES sufferer in my example, has a pack of crisps, three biscuits and a mars bar. They are not hungry but feel compelled to snack. They have just had around 600 calories they did not need. If they do this just three nights a week, that’s an extra 1,800 calories per week. Over the course of the year that equates to putting on an extra stone in weight.
I actually believe that my example is rather tame as well. I think there are some people out there who have much more severe NES. I acknowledge that people need to take some personal control of their diet and eating habits, but there also needs to be greater support and awareness of the severity of eating disorders. The food industry from top to bottom needs to change as well. My local shop is one of the small branches of a major supermarket. They have nine rows of shelves in the store. Less than one full shelf is given to fresh fruit and vegetables. I would estimate that almost half of the store is given to crisps, chocolate, biscuits, cakes, soft drinks and chilled desserts.
There have been a number of reports that suggest many junk foods are addictive and that they stimulate the parts of the brain that make you feel good. If we have a person that has NES and they turn to junk food, then they may feel good in the short term. So what do they do? They reach for some more of that junk food. I seem to remember reading something a while back that demonstrated some ingredients in certain junk foods suppress feelings of being full. Essentially, you have a perfect storm; a person with an eating disorder that makes them eat when they’re not actually hungry. We have a food industry that promotes unhealthy food at low prices, undercutting healthy food. We have junk food with ingredients that are linked to addictive behaviour and lead to cravings for that same food even beyond feelings of being full. Is it any wonder that more people are suffering from eating disorders?
Critic. Writer. Thinker. Observer. Creator of nowwelive.com.