Obesity starts from late night snacks

If you nibble at the chocolate cake after dinner and then the potato salad and then have a bite of chicken and a spoonful of ice cream and then go back to the cake and so on, you could be exhibiting some classic signs of nighttime eating syndrome. Do it once or twice and it's no big deal. But if the habit grows (and you with it), it may not be a joking matter.

First described in 1955 by University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Albert Stunkard, NES is an eating disorder that many scientists believe contributes to overweight and obesity. How often the syndrome occurs in the general population is not known. But according to Stunkard, researchers have found that about 5 percent of those attending obesity clinics have NES, as do up to 28 percent of those awaiting gastric bypass surgery, one of the most drastic treatments for excess weight. "It looks like the fatter you are, the more likely you are to have it," he said.

Stunkard said the severity of NES symptoms can range from occasional nighttime bouts of overeating to nightly binges. At its extreme, the syndrome has these symptoms: skipping breakfast at least four times per week, consuming more than half of daily calories after 7 p.m., difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep more than four nights per week. Nighttime depression is also very common.

For years, Stunkard thought NES was caused by disordered sleep. But the latest findings suggest "it's a disorder of circadian eating rhythms," he said. "Everything is delayed by about six hours, so that people with NES don't get hungry until late in the morning, and then at night they're hungry," according to azcentral.com

Here's what experts say can help with out-of-control nighttime eating: Eat breakfast. Most people with NES aren't hungry in the morning. But if they can learn to stomach a morning meal, it can help stop their nighttime overeating, says psychologist Marci Gluck at the New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital.

Control portions. If you find yourself succumbing to the urge for evening noshing, have some food. Just measure out portions and stop when that portion is finished.

Keep trigger foods out of the house. You know best what food is likely to call to you at your weakest moment. So load up on low-calorie, filling fare (raw veggies, fruit, soup) that can be consumed if the urge to eat surfaces. And there's no need to avoid favorite foods altogether: Just buy a single serving that can be eaten once or twice a week.

Find alternatives to eating. Gluck advises her patients to make a list of nonfood-related activities that they can do when the urge for nighttime eating hits. Take a walk. Knit. Call a friend. Work on a photo album. Do a few push-ups or sit-ups.

Brush your teeth immediately after dinner. It's one way to signal your brain that the meal - and eating for the day - is over, report chron.com

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