Midnight snacking is definitely relatable, but can sleep-eating be a legit health issue?

By Julia Guerra
Taylor Swift arrives the '2019 Billboard Music Awards' at MGM Grand Arena on May 01, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Credit: Daniel Torok/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

Some people talk in their sleep; some people walk in their sleep; others eat in their sleep. Evidently, Taylor Swift is one of the latter.

In a recent interview with Ellen Degeneres, the ME! singer admitted that when she can't sleep, she "rummages through the kitchen," eating whatever she can find, "like a raccoon in a dumpster."

At first, it sounds like Swift is simply experiencing a rabid case of the munchies when sleep won't come. But then the performer explained that when she wakes up, she doesn't remember eating a thing. Instead, the only evidence she has to prove that she ate during the night is the mess she leaves behind.

"It's not really voluntary," Swift told Degeneres. "I don't really remember it, but I know it happens because it could only be me—or cats." (Related: Study Says Late-Night Eating Really Does Make You Gain Weight)

Degeneres' conversation with Swift brings up an interesting question: What exactly is sleep-eating, and is it something you should be concerned about if you do it, too?

Well, first of all, a sleep-eater is not the same as someone who snacks in the middle of the night.

"The difference between [sleep-eating and midnight-snacking] is that midnight-snacking involves voluntarily and consciously eating typical foods," says Nate Watson, M.D., SleepScore Labs scientific advisory board member. Sleep-eating, on the other hand, is a sleep-related eating disorder, or SRED, in which "there is no memory of eating, and strange foods can be consumed, like dry pancake batter or sticks of butter," says Dr. Watson. (Related: Eating Late at Night: How to Make Healthy Choices)

Midnight snackers may have something called night eating syndrome (NES), says Robert Glatter, M.D., an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health. "They may wake up hungry, and won't be able to fall asleep until they eat," he explains. People with NES also tend to "restrict calories during the day, resulting in hunger as the day progresses, leading to binging in the evening and nighttime, as sleep weakens their ability to control their appetite," says Dr. Glatter.

Given the vague information we know about Swift's nighttime snacking, it's nearly impossible to say whether she has an SRED, NES, or any related health condition for that matter. It could very well be that Swift just enjoys a midnight snack every once in a while—and honestly, who doesn't? (Related: Taylor Swift Swears By This Supplement for Stress and Anxiety Relief)

Still, SRED can be a potentially dangerous condition that can sometimes lead to unhealthy weight gain, consuming something toxic, choking, and even injury, such as burns or lacerations, says Jesse Mindel, M.D., a sleep medicine specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

If you happen to find yourself waking up to a mysterious mess in the kitchen (think open food containers and bottles, spills, wrappers left on the counter, partially eaten foods in the fridge), you can try monitoring your sleep activity through apps like SleepScore to see if you've been out of bed for any period of time. Ultimately, though, if you're truly concerned, it's in your best interest to speak with a physician or sleep expert, says Dr. Mindel.