Night-time snacking triggered by stress

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PEOPLE WHO skip breakfast, raid the fridge after supper and wake in the small hours with hunger pangs may be suffering from night eating syndrome, an expert said yesterday.

This newly identified eating disorder, which affects thin as well as fat people, is thought to be triggered by stress, which causes a shift in the biological rhythm of sleeping and eating. People affected consumed half their total calories in snacks after supper.

Professor Albert Stunkard, a psychiatrist from the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, told the London International Conference on Eating Disorders yesterday that night eating syndrome affected an estimated one in 75 of the population, about 900,000 people in the UK, and up to one in 10 people attending obesity clinics.

The typical sufferer gets up in the morning with no appetite, skips breakfast and may miss lunch and does their main eating in the evening. As the day goes on they eat increasing amounts of carbohydrate "comfort food" - especially biscuits, cakes and sweet things. One study found that on average those affected ate 450 calories more than normal, which could contribute to obesity.

Professor Stunkard, who in the Fifties first described the bingeing now recognised as bulimia, said with the new disorder, "mood tends to fall during the day and as their mood falls, eating goes up". He said it was likely to be more common among women than men, and was a combination of an eating, sleeping and mood disorder linked to levels of two hormones affecting sleep and appetite, melatonin and leptin - which suggested it might be treated with hormone supplements.

t Children under 10 who show signs of food refusal may be suffering from a disorder triggered by distress - for instance, over divorce. Sufferers of food- avoidance emotional disorder do not fear being fat - as in anorexia - but are too miserable to sleep or eat well, says Rachel Bryant-Waugh, a psychologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital.