Our bodies are good and worthy of nutrients and delicious foods. But people still get stuck on the idea that we need to restrict what we put into our bodies based on the latest weight loss or “health” trend. I managed to acquire the fear and assumption that eating after a certain time each night would add to yearly weight gain — as if that would be the worst thing that would ever happen to me. I learned through bullshit diets that eating right before bed was bad. I never learned why, though. If I’m hungry, shouldn’t I eat? And if I’m always hungry before it’s time to sleep, shouldn’t I figure out why?
Yes, but if you are also a product of watching your mother cycle through Weight Watchers, Richard Simmons, or whatever grapefruit-Diet Coke meal plan that she thought would work at the time, then you may have some baggage to unpack or throw off of a cliff. The goal is to figure out what your body needs and to adjust accordingly, even if it means going against what we were taught about nighttime snacks.
Are You Getting Enough To Eat Throughout The Day?
Food insecurity is real, and if you’re struggling to feed yourself or your family, please contact a local foodbank in your area or see if you’re eligible for government assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
If you have access to food and are capable of feeding yourself throughout the day, then ask yourself what you’re eating and when. Wendy Lopez, a registered dietitian/nutritionist, recommends three meals a day that include the macronutrients our bodies need. This is a mix of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Making sure there is fiber in our food is important too.
Lopez also points out the importance of breakfast because it sets our day up for meal timing all day long. When we eat in the morning — even something small or light — we get our digestive system moving, and that helps our bodies regulate hunger levels. Eating later in the day usually means we’ll be feeling hungry later into the night.
If you are skipping meals or not eating enough at each meal or before or after working out, Lopez says, “Hunger before bed may simply be your body telling you that it requires more energy and nutrients.” Adding breakfast to the mix will add those nutrients.
Food is meant to fuel us and keep us satisfied for at least a few hours. It’s okay to add snacks to your day when you’re hungry — even before bed.
Are You Getting Enough Sleep?
As annoying or cliché as it sounds, sleep can be our best medicine. When we aren’t getting enough sleep, our body’s chemicals freak the fuck out. A lack of sleep increases cortisol (aka the stress hormone) levels in our body. This spike often leads to increased cravings of sugary, fatty, comfort foods. These foods give our brains hits of serotonin and may make us feel better or satisfied in the moment, but often leave us hungry quicker.
Ghrelin, or the hunger hormone, also increases when we are overtired. This causes us to feel hungry and experience more food cravings. The hormone leptin is also disrupted when we’re not getting enough sleep and can cause us to feel hungry even after eating.
Depending on what you eat before bed can cause heartburn and other digestive problems that can keep you awake. So if you do need to eat something before sleep, try to avoid fried, greasy foods that take longer to digest. Eating spicy or sugary foods can cause discomfort when we lie down and run the risk of keep us up or waking us during the night. If possible, eat at least an hour or two before you go to bed if you know you’ll feel hungry as you’re wrapping up your day. Gentle on the stomach snacks include dried nuts, fruit, crackers, or (my go-to) peanut butter on toast or granola bar.
Are You Actually Hungry?
Not that you need to have a “valid” reason to eat, but it’s helpful to understand your body and what it needs and wants. We eat for a lot of reasons because our motivation behind eating or feeling hungry are varied too. Sometimes our hunger is physical and sometimes it’s emotional. One of the ideas behind intuitive eating is to recognize the difference between the two and to honor and trust what your body needs.
Eating to satisfy our physical hunger without shame or guilt vs. eating based on a diet book, plan, or “should” is one of the foundations behind intuitive eating. If your body is physically hungry, feed it. When you are full, stop eating. That is easier said than done for many people, so be kind to yourself if you are still trying to figure out a healthy relationship with food.
Sometimes we’re not physically hungry but may be bored, anxious, or sad. We may just be craving a certain snack like chocolate or chips. Lopez says, “you should honor that craving instead of struggling to satisfy it with another food that likely won’t fulfill that need.”
Your sensations of hunger can also be influenced by the medications you’re taking, the amount of activity you had in one day, or if you are in the luteal phase of your menstruation cycle. This is the period after ovulation and before the uterus sheds its lining.
Our bodies are complex systems of chemicals, genetics, and science beyond our control. There isn’t one dietary recommendation that works for every body. No one should starve themselves to fit someone’s else’s idea of health or beauty. It’s also okay to make dietary changes that work for you so that you can reach personal goals that make you feel healthy, strong, and safe.
I and so many people, especially those who have lived as a female for some time of their life, have been shamed, hurt by, and felt the pressure of diet culture. The idea that thinness equals happiness and health has poisoned too many of the people I care about and love. The thinking that some foods are “bad” or “guilty-pleasures” makes people equate themselves as bad or guilty for something someone decided was unhealthy, i.e., going to make you gain weight. If your stomach is growling or your brain is telling you you’re hungry before you go to bed, there’s likely a reason.