As humans, we’ve grown accustomed to eating at the same times each day — usually in the morning for breakfast, in the early afternoon for lunch and in the evening for dinner, with a few snacks thrown in between. But if you’re like most humans, you’ve also experienced hunger outside the realm of these social structures — maybe even late into the evening around the time you’d normally head to bed.
Despite what you’ve probably heard, eating before bed is not necessarily bad, but it’s also not ideal either. In fact, eating before bed is a bit controversial, with some research showing that it could be negative for your overall health and other research showing that it does have some silver linings.
“There have been studies suggesting poor uptake of sugar in our blood when melatonin is high at night before bed and early in the morning,” says Laura Cipullo, RD, a registered dietitian who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders and diabetes. “However, it is likely better to eat enough, even when you feel hungry before bed, and sleep well (seven to nine hours) than to skip dinner and interrupt your sleep cycle.”
If you find yourself eating late every night, a good way to figure out whether doing so is conducive to your well-being is to figure out what’s causing that hunger at that given time of day. Here, registered dietitians break down some of the key culprits of increased hunger during bedtime and explain the best ways to go about addressing this hunger.
1. You Skipped Breakfast
There’s a reason why breakfast is known as the most important meal of the day. After having fasted for 10 to 12 hours through the night, your body is naturally craving food and may very well benefit from enjoying a meal first thing in the morning. In fact, one study published in The Journal of Nutrition linked eating breakfast to a decreased risk in Type 2 diabetes. What’s more: Skipping breakfast also may make you hungrier in the nighttime and increase your risk for obesity, Cipullo notes.
If you’ve gotten in the habit of skipping breakfast, Cipullo recommends trying to eat at least a 250-calorie meal in the morning consisting of high protein, fat and fiber, like a hard-boiled egg on a piece of toasted wheat bread.
2. You’re Not Eating Enough Throughout the Day
When you are not eating enough food throughout the day, you risk going into a calorie deficit — when the number of calories you burn is greater than the number of calories you’ve consumed. This might leave you hungry before bed. “Just like when you don’t have enough gas in the car to make it on an eight-hour road trip, your brain needs fuel to make it through the day,” says Tony Castillo, MS, RDN, LDN, co-founder of Nutrition for Performance.
To prevent this from happening, he recommends eating a fiber-rich dinner full of fruits or vegetables. “You can also include a protein and fiber-rich snack before bed, like Greek yogurt and berries or cottage cheese and pineapple,” he adds.
3. You eat while watching TV or scrolling through your phone
Do you find that whenever you sit down to eat, you turn on some form of digital entertainment, be it your television, computer or smartphone? If so, this is what’s known as mindless eating, notes Cipullo, which occurs when your brain is being distracted by something else other than what it should be at the time: your food. “When you do this, you start associating these activities with eating, which may lead to your being hungry for no reason — even before bed,” Cipullo says.
To break this unhealthy habit, she recommends trying to eat your meals in your kitchen without any screens and potentially starting a timer for at least 10 minutes to allow you to focus on enjoying your meal.
4. You Had a Light Dinner
Maybe you weren’t that hungry or are focusing on shedding some pounds, but cutting down your calorie count too much during dinnertime might actually cause you to be hungry before bed, warns Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, dietitian and author of Eating in Color (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2014). “Make sure that your meal includes satisfying protein, like beans, salmon, tuna or a hard-boiled egg, plus some healthy fat in the form of olive oil, nuts, avocado or a small amount of cheese,” she says. “And if you’re eating lean protein and veggies, add a ½ cup of quinoa or barley or a slice of sourdough bread to help fill you up and provide a source of carbohydrates.”
5. You Worked Out in the Evening
“If you worked out before dinner and then came home and refueled, you may not have gotten enough food with that meal to cover the energy expenditure of your workout,” Largeman-Roth explains. “This is because we’re often not ravenous immediately after a workout but then get very hungry a few hours after exercise.”
If you work out in the evening and you get hungry even after dinner, she suggests opting for a healthy snack, like a slice of avocado toast or a bowl of oatmeal with banana before bed. “These carbohydrate-rich snacks will also help you replenish the muscle and liver glycogen that was burned during your workout,” she adds.
6. You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep
Sleep is vital to our overall health. Not only do we feel tired and worn out after a night of poor rest, but research also has shown that it may lead to overeating and cause you to be hungry before bed. “When we are tired, hormones called ghrelin and leptin can be triggered, which can cause spikes in hunger and food cravings,” Castillo says. This could be an easy fix by getting to bed earlier and creating a soothing bedtime routine to help you unwind.
7. Your Period is On its Way
If you’re a person with a period, you likely know that you tend to get hungrier when Aunt Flo arrives —and this is no coincidence. A study published by the journal Human Reproduction found that the hormonal fluctuations associated with the premenstrual phase may cause an uptick in food cravings.
If you’re a little hungrier each month before your cycle, there’s no reason to stress over it. Largeman-Roth suggests having a small snack before bed, like some popcorn-based trail mix or a smoothie. “This can be a great way to give your body the extra fuel it desires,” she adds.