Why You’re Hungry Before Bed—And What to Do About It
As a dietitian, it’s impossible to keep up with all of the latest meal-timing trends—a lot of which are actually just nutrition myths. At the top of the list? The “rule” that you should just say no to eating before bed, due to the belief that nighttime eating can lead to weight gain or mess with a structured eating plan.
But many people feel hungry before bed, or simply want to enjoy a bedtime snack. If that’s you, do you really need to heed that “rule” and shift your eating to earlier in the day?
Well, like many things in the nutrition world, it’s complicated. My approach to nutrition has always been individualized, so I steer away from blanket recommendations, like never eat close to bedtime. That’s because they fail to address someone’s unique circumstances when it comes to food. For instance, maybe you work long shifts and you can only eat when you get home, right before you go to bed. Or maybe you have diabetes and need to maintain stable blood sugar throughout the day. In that case, a bedtime snack can be helpful.
Still, there is some truth that eating before bed might not be best in some ways, like for your digestion. For most people, it takes two to four hours for most of the stomach to empty out before your body continues the digestion process in the small and large intestines. If your stomach is still working hard to break down food, you may feel discomfort when lying down to sleep. You may also experience gastric reflux or other digestive issues if you eat too close to bed, which studies have shown can lead to waking up more during the night and worse quality of sleep overall. Because of this, I typically recommend eating larger meals at least two hours before bedtime for optimal digestion and the least likelihood of it messing with your sleep.
Of course, if you go to bed hungry, that’s not great for your sleep either. That’s why, if you consistently find yourself hungry before bed, I would want to zoom out and assess what’s happening during the day at your mealtimes. Bedtime hunger may be an indication that you’re not eating enough during the day. As a result, your body may be trying to compensate right before bed by taking in extra energy to make up for what it missed earlier.
Intuitive eating paired with flexible nutrition guidelines can help make sure your nutritional needs are being met throughout the day. Intuitive eating is an evidenced-based approach to eating where, instead of focusing on external food rules to guide your eating choices—say, like eating six small meals per day or cutting out sweets after 5 p.m.—one of the goals is to cultivate trusting your own body and instincts to determine when and what you eat. I’ve found intuitive eating can help us quiet the noise and tune into what habits help us feel our best.
With intuitive eating, instead of labeling nighttime hunger as “bad,” the focus shifts to how you’re feeling during mealtimes. Are you satisfied physically and mentally? Are you making food choices that reflect your unique needs, instead of what social media is telling you to eat? For people with a history of dieting and food restriction, intuitive eating can take time to adopt—and that’s where flexible nutrition guidelines come in. There is a place for structure and flexible meal planning with intuitive eating, and both can be incredibly helpful for making sure your needs are met.
Here are a few questions I recommend you ask yourself if you keep feeling famished as bedtime approaches:
1. What’s breakfast looking like?
Often overlooked, breakfast can set the tone for meal timing throughout the rest of the day. That’s because it helps your digestion get going early in the morning, which in turn influences hunger levels for the hours to come. Waiting several hours until your first meal can also result in feeling hungrier later in the day, which can affect eating into the later hours.
If you’re not used to eating in the mornings or don’t have much of a road map for when you eat throughout the day, breakfast can be a challenge. Initially, it may feel like you’re forcing yourself to eat without being hungry (doesn’t sound very intuitive, amiright?). However, with practice, your body will likely adjust. What’s more, you don’t have to eat a huge breakfast, especially if you’re not feeling it. You can start with smaller meals or a hearty snack instead of going all out with eggs, toast, and fruit. Experiment with yogurt or a fruit smoothie and see how you feel.
It’s also important to emphasize that there are no fixed rules with this, and if breakfast is still not vibing well with you, then you should honor that. Just keep in mind that if your goal is to stop feeling hungry before bed, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting enough nutrients through other meals and snacks for your nutritional needs.
2. What are you eating throughout the day?
Like I mentioned before, hunger before bed may simply be your body telling you that it requires more energy and nutrients. That’s likely to be the case if you are skipping meals, not having enough food during a given meal, not fueling properly with food before and after workouts, or if you have a medical condition or are on medications that increase appetite.
I recommend eating a minimum of three complete meals per day that include a balance of the three macronutrients: carbohydrates (including fiber), protein, and fat, which together will help you meet your daily energy needs. This can look like a tuna sandwich with a side salad or stewed chicken with curry vegetables and sweet potatoes. These meals can be as simple or elaborate as you want them to be.
Just keep in mind that a chicken salad without carbs or salmon with only roasted veggies probably won’t cut it. A balance of the three macronutrients is important for satiety. Generally speaking, a complete meal should keep you satisfied for about three hours. Then, depending on factors like exercise or medication (or whether you simply want to enjoy eating a snack), you may want to have additional food or snacks if you’re left feeling hungry in between meals.
3. Are you hungry or are you craving something in particular?
Okay, so what if you’ve gone through the first two questions and have determined that you are nourishing yourself adequately, but you still feel hungry at night?
If you find that you’re eating complete, satisfying meals throughout the day but still have a strong urge to eat at night, that’s still no cause for alarm. First, ask yourself if you’re hungry or if you’re craving something in particular. Maybe you’re not hungry for a snack or meal, but you really want a piece of chocolate. In that case, you should honor that craving instead of struggling to satisfy it with another food that likely won’t fulfill that need.
Or maybe you’re actually hungry and need a sandwich—maybe you were especially active that day, or are in the luteal phase of your menstrual cycle, during which your body may burn slightly more calories when you’re at rest. In this case, it can be helpful to check in with yourself a couple hours before bedtime to assess your hunger level. If you find that you are hungry, eating at this point will give your body more time to digest before sleep than if you decide to eat something right before lights out. In this case, it’s still a good idea to have at least an hour to digest properly to cut down on the chances of experiencing major discomfort.
Also, the type of food you choose for your bedtime meal or snack matters too. Fried foods and foods prepared with a significant amount of fat are going to slow down digestion, so, if possible, go for foods that are more gentle on the stomach. Here are five ideas:
- Brothy chicken soup
- Apple sauce
- Toast with peanut butter
- Fruit salad
- Roasted nuts with dried fruit
Keep in mind that medical conditions, unique metabolic needs, medications, and other factors can impact hunger and fullness. As a result, avoiding bedtime eating may not make sense for everyone, and you’ll want to experiment to see what meal satisfaction looks like for you. I highly encourage food experimentation while letting go of rigid rules, shame, and fear around meal timing. Of course, that’s easier said than done, so if this is something you struggle with, especially if the intrusive thoughts interfere with your life, you may want to consider seeing a mental health professional who can help you manage feelings of guilt and shame around food.
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