You may go to bed hungry for several reasons. Some reasons, such as weight management, are by your own choice. Other reasons, such as a lack of access to food, aren’t necessarily your choice.
In general, stopping food consumption hours before bedtime is generally considered healthy as long as you’re getting adequate nutrition and calories throughout the day.
If you’re hungry before bedtime and concerned you won’t be able to fall asleep because of an empty stomach, there are many healthy foods you can eat at night. If you don’t have consistent access to food, we provide links to resources that may help.
Read on to learn more about whether it’s okay to go to bed hungry, what some possible side effects might be, and foods that are okay to eat before bed.
Going to bed hungry may be OK if you’re meeting nutrition requirements on a daily basis or following a healthy weight loss plan. In many cases, a healthy eating schedule may result in you feeling hungry before bedtime.
Here are some reasons you may go to bed feeling hungry and whether or not this may indicate an underlying issue that you need to address.
Following a healthy meal schedule
In general, a healthy eating schedule consists of three meals a day with small snacks between meals if needed.
So depending on when you go to bed, eating a well-rounded diet that concludes with dinner in the early evening well before bedtime could result in you feeling a little bit hungry as you drift into dreamland hours later.
Cutting back calories
You may fall asleep hungry if you’re intentionally cutting back calories for weight loss.
Make sure you’re maintaining a well-balanced diet, even if you’re following a more restrictive diet, such as a keto or vegan diet. This will ensure your nighttime hunger isn’t a cause for concern.
Some intermittent fasting diets dictate the times of day you can eat. This may result in you feeling hungry before or around bedtime if you go to bed during a fasting period.
Not getting enough sleep
You may also feel hungry before bed because you’re not getting enough sleep.
Overtiredness can trigger the hormone ghrelin. This hormone spikes food cravings and the feeling of hunger.
Another hormone called leptin can also be triggered by inadequate sleep and cause you to feel hungry even after eating a meal.
Getting a healthy amount of sleep per night is essential to feeling less hungry when you go to bed.
Undernutrition or malnutrition
Going to bed hungry may also be the sign of a more serious condition like malnutrition. Experiencing hunger at night because of a lack of nutrition and access to food is another issue entirely.
Undernutrition is a type of malnutrition and is defined as consuming fewer than 1,800 calories a day, as well as lacking proper consumption of vitamins, minerals, and other essential components to a well-balanced diet.
Prolonged undernutrition can contribute to slowed growth in children, as well as other health problems in adults and children.
Millions of families face food insecurity
Millions of households in the United States are unable to provide enough food for every person in their family to live an active, healthy life. If you or your family need help with food, click this link to find a food bank in your area. You can also apply for a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Find out more about this program here.
Going to bed hungry may make you feel a sense of emptiness or dissatisfaction because you haven’t satisfied your appetite. But it may be healthier to go to bed hungry than eat too close to bedtime.
There are several side effects associated with eating right before bed. Eating after dinner or late at night can result in weight gain and in an increased body mass index (BMI).
You may also experience indigestion or broken sleep if you eat or drink too close to bedtime. Your metabolism also slows as your body prepares for sleep and you don’t typically need additional calories.
Several research studies have highlighted the risks of eating too close to bedtime:
2013 studyfound that eating within 4 hours of bedtime could result in eating more calories throughout the day.
2014 studyfound that the increased caloric intake from eating later in the evening and closer to bedtime may result in eating extra calories and gaining weight because you end up eating more times throughout the day.
2017 studyfound that eating closer to when your body begins to produce melatonin (which occurs a few hours before bedtime) can result in an increased body fat percentage.
Eating late at night may also contribute to indigestion and sleep problems.
You may feel hungry enough before bed that you need to eat a snack before turning out the lights.
There are several healthy foods and eating habits you can choose that can encourage sleep while also avoiding sleep problems and an upset stomach.
Foods with tryptophan
Late-night snacks can involve foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan. These foods encourage sleep by activating the hormone serotonin in your body.
Foods that contain this amino acid include:
Consider eating a small portion of foods with tryptophan along with something made with whole grains. Whole grains are complex carbohydrates and won’t upset your stomach.
Whole grain foods include:
What to avoid
Avoid food that will take a long time to digest, upset your stomach, or make it difficult to sleep. These may include food that is:
Also, be careful about the beverages you consume before bedtime.
Drinking too much of anything could lead to frequent bathroom visits during the night (nocturia).
Additionally, beverages containing alcohol or caffeine could make it more difficult to fall or stay asleep.
You may want to adjust your daily eating habits to fill up long before winding down for the day if you find yourself needing food before bedtime on a regular basis due to hunger.
Examining what and when you eat may help you adjust your diet to avoid the urge to eat a late-night snack.
Here are some tips to avoid nighttime hunger or late-night eating:
- Determine how many daily calories you should be eating. Divide up your food intake over the course of the day. Plan to finish eating well before bedtime. An average adult’s diet consists of 2,000 calories every day.
- Consider eating three meals at regular times of the day. Supplement these meals with small, healthy snacks as needed.
- Eat a diet focused on a variety of foods. This includes fruits, vegetables, proteins, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains.
- Try eating more protein and fiber at dinnertime. Protein and fiber will help to keep you feeling full.
- Avoid overeating unhealthy foods. Stay away from foods that contain a lot of refined sugar or salt, and are high in saturated fat.
- Reconsider drinking your calories. Beverages like smoothies digest faster than solid foods.
Not having access to food or proper nutrition is a public health issue.
According to Feeding America, over 37 million people in the United States alone deal with hunger due to poverty or the lack of a local market that sells nutritious, affordable meals.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, this number has increased. During 2020, the loss of jobs and housing linked to the pandemic resulted in nearly 54 million people losing consistent access to nutritious food.
This means that millions go to bed hungry, but not by choice. Though going to bed hungry can help with sleep and weight loss, lack of access to food can actually increase your risk of obesity, asthma, and other health problems.
Here’s what you can do if you go to bed hungry because of malnutrition or lack of food access:
- Find a local food bank
- Sign up for supplemental nutrition assistance programs (SNAP) through the U.S. government
- Sign up for state and federal unemployment benefits if you’ve lost your job
- Consider moving to an area with greater access to grocery stores and farmer’s markets, if this is affordable for you
Going to bed hungry can be safe as long as you’re eating a well-balanced diet throughout the day. Avoiding late-night snacks or meals can actually help avoid weight gain and an increased BMI.
If you’re so hungry that you can’t go to bed, you can eat foods that are easy to digest and promote sleep. Stay away from large meals and spicy, sweet, or greasy foods before bedtime.
Hunger at bedtime associated with malnutrition or overtiredness is problematic and should be addressed.