5 Common Mistakes about Bingeing at Night

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If you're like many people, you might find yourself overeating or bingeing at night. Maybe you have a few too many snacks while watching TV. Maybe you decide to have a few bites of ice cream and end up finishing the whole pint.

Nighttime binge eating can be a real problem. Not only can it lead to weight gain, but it can also disrupt your sleep and leave you feeling grouchy the next day. Worse, it makes you feel terrible about yourself and impacts your self-esteem.

Overeating is different from binge eating. Overeating means “eating to excess” and is something all of us do at some time or another. When we overeat, we essentially shrug it off and tell ourselves we’ll eat a little less the next day. Overeating isn’t a big deal and doesn’t impact the way we feel about ourselves.

Bingeing is different. Bingeing means eating large quantities of food at one time, compulsively, often without enjoyment. It’s about being out of control with food and involves a great deal of shame, remorse, and self-recrimination. Bingeing negatively impacts self-esteem and makes us feel bad about ourselves.

So how can you stop nighttime binge eating? First, let’s look at some common mistaken beliefs when it comes to binge eating at night, as well as the truth about each of these misconceptions.

Mistake #1: Thinking if you eat more during the day you won’t binge at night

The idea behind this belief is that if you eat enough to satisfy yourself during the day, you won’t get as hungry at night. Then, if you’re not ravenous at night, you won’t find yourself heading to the kitchen and grazing on whatever you find in the fridge or the pantry. In other words, if you’re not hungry, you won’t binge.

Here’s the truth: Bingeing is not about physical hunger

Emotional eating has to do with your hungry heart, not your stomach. While it’s true that if you don’t eat enough during the day, you may get hungrier at night, that doesn’t correspond to bingeing. When we eat to resolve and manage our physical hunger, we stop when we’re full. Binge eating is about using food to change the way you emotionally feel, and it does not matter whether you’re hungry or not.

Mistake # 2: Practice mindful eating so you won’t binge

Mindful eating means sitting down to eat and really paying attention to what you're doing. Mindfulness is noticing the taste, texture, and smell of your food. The idea behind this mistaken belief is that by eating slowly and appreciating food more, you won’t overdo it and overeat or binge.

Here’s the truth: Bingeing is about going mindless

The purpose of bingeing is to escape our minds. Many clients and patients describe a sense of feeling disconnected and dissociated from themselves when they binge. I’ve heard it called “the dead zone” or “the numb zone.” Since the unconscious goal of bingeing is to escape from psychological pain, focusing on mindful eating will not be effective. Mindful eating, while a good practice when it comes to normal eating, is ineffective as a strategy to combat binge eating since it puts the focus on what we’re eating instead of why.

Mistake #3: Trying to distract yourself with other things at night

The idea is that if you're feeling the urge to binge at night, you can distract yourself with some other activity that’s healthier and less destructive: call a friend, read a book, watch a movie, or even brush your teeth. If you occupy your mind with other things, that will prevent you from turning to food at night.

Here’s the truth: What you feel, you will heal

As a client once said, “If brushing my teeth worked as well as bingeing, I’d have the whitest teeth in America.” Chances are you’ve already tried distracting yourself from painful or upsetting emotions by doing something else. And chances are, it didn’t work in the long run.

Ultimately the only way to get rid of feelings is to experience and feel them. That does not mean “sitting” in your feelings until they magically disappear. It means identifying your emotions, expressing them in some way, such as journaling or talking to a trusted friend or therapist, and responding to yourself with validation and comfort.

Mistake #4: Sleeping more will make you binge less

It’s true that a lack of sleep can lead to increased hunger, and it’s important for many health reasons to get enough shut-eye. Aiming for seven to eight hours per night is ideal for optimal health. Yet, getting enough sleep won’t stop you from bingeing because sleep has to do with physicality not psychology.

Here’s the truth:

Some people eat chocolate or something sugary to stay awake or to give them a little more pep later in the day. That’s not a good strategy, since when we’re tired, we need rest, not sugar. Yet, eating or overeating sugary foods is different from bingeing, which is eating to resolve something internal. Since bingeing serves as a way of resolving emotional conflicts, your level of exhaustion has very little impact on whether you binge.

Mistake #5: Avoid trigger foods to stop nighttime bingeing

You may believe that the only way to avoid bingeing at night is to avoid your trigger foods. Getting rid of tempting food items from your house, or simply avoiding the kitchen altogether after dinner, are two common strategies.

Here’s the truth: There are no trigger foods. Only trigger situations.

With binge eating, food is not actually the trigger (although it often sure seems as if it is). The real trigger is some uncomfortable, painful, or upsetting situation. Bingeing is a way of coping with those triggers and is a solution to the real triggers, which are the underlying thoughts, emotions, or conflicts we want to avoid. Instead of using willpower to avoid certain foods, consider whether you are turning to food for comfort, distraction, to fill a void, or cope with something in your life.

As you can see from these myth-busting truths, bingeing at any time of the day or night isn’t really about food. It’s a form of coping with something unpleasant or difficult and it has to do with food, but it’s ultimately not about what you’re eating. The problem is what’s eating “at” you. Focusing on food keeps you from identifying and working through why you want to binge and keeps you from learning how to respond to yourself in a new way.

The key to stop bingeing at night is to first identify your true triggers, then learn how to express those emotions, and finally soothe yourself with words.

If you’re turning to food at night and you feel desperate and unhappy about your eating habits and your weight, but you don’t know what to do other than diet, start creating change by downloading my free Food-Mood Formula secret, which helps you figure out the hidden reasons you’re bingeing, and gets you on a path to food freedom and living your best life.

 The Author


Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author and radio host specializing in binge eating disorder. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, and co-editor of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Dr. Nina Show radio program on LA Talk Radio.

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