October 17, 2021

The Struggle: Why Am I Always Hungry at Night?

This is a real struggle for so many people. Why am I always hungry at night? You feel ready to go to bed and have a restful night but can’t. We have heard this line before: “I feel hungry and can tell that my body is asking for more food. Why does this happen to me? Is it wrong to want to eat something late at night?”

Take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Let’s talk through why this might be happening and what we recommend you do about it.

fridge open at night- hungry at night

Not Eating Enough During the Day → Hungry at Night

Sometimes, in order to avoid overeating throughout the day, you end up not meeting your energy needs. This can be exacerbated if you find yourself following a restrictive diet where you must override your hunger cues in order to stick with this diet. 

It makes my heart sad to find out how many people actually do this and pat themselves on the back when they are able to stick with it. It’s no surprise to me that this may lead to loud and clear signals of hunger at the end of the day. Our bodies are not machines we can just turn off when we no longer want to utilize them. 

Your body must find a way to communicate to you that it needs more energy in order to run efficiently. Starving yourself all day is a recipe for a hungry night! Eating too little can also lead to restlessness and the acute awareness of an empty stomach.

Starving yourself is not healthy. Starving yourself SOMEHOW is the method that many diets use in order to promote weight loss tactics. Diets and diet culture looooove to make people feel like it is their responsibility to be persistent and disciplined in order to achieve unhealthy weight loss goals. If you find yourself following a diet that:

  • zaps all of your energy
  • gives you an impossibly inflexible set of rules to follow
  • blames YOU when the weight loss has not occurred fast enough (or at all)
  • makes you feel shame for not excelling on an energy deficit diet
  • gives you only ONE marker of success: weight (a number the fluctuates depending on the time of day, with water retention, consumption of salt, muscle mass, etc)

If the list above sounds familiar, you might be following an unhealthy diet. Maybe they are not providing an individualized caloric range that meets your energy needs. Maybe this diet does not take into account stress, hormones, or emotional state.

If you take anything away from this blog, I hope it is this: please eat enough. Make sure you’re eating enough calories throughout the day so you have energy for ALL of your activities. This will usually consist of three meals + snacks. I promise you, starving yourself is not the solution. Starving is not healthy. Food freedom is. 

Therefore, if you’re not eating enough throughout the day, the solution is to eat more in order to meet your energy needs. Give in and have the snack you need before you fall asleep.

 

But Isn’t It Unhealthy to Eat too Close to Bedtime?

Let’s clear this up once and for all. It’s a myth! In fact, if anything…eating earlier might actually make people more hungry at night because too much time has passed between meals. Think about it! 

If you have an early dinner around 5:30 pm and go to bed around 11:00 pm, that makes 5 and a half hours of no food. Generally speaking, in order to keep up with what we call “Logical Hunger,” one might eat a meal or snack every 3-4 hours or so. This is simply to keep up with your body’s energy demand. 

Another concern is weight gain as a consequence of eating later in the day. Eating too close to bedtime does not cause weight gain. There is nothing magical that occurs after 8:00 pm that causes your body to gain weight if you eat anything after that time. 

Think about the countries that usually eat later in the day, say Greece, France, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Chile, Argentina. People in these countries traditionally eat fairly late in the day for their last meal. If the myth that eating late causes weight gain, we would observe this phenomenon occur pretty consistently throughout these countries. 

Eating closer to your daily caloric needs will help maintain your energy demands and stop hungry feelings from disrupting sleep patterns.That’s why focusing on eating three well-balanced meals each day (plus snacks) can be a great goal to overcome constant hunger at nighttime.

 

Poor Sleeping Habits Hungry at Night

Poor sleeping habits can lead to hungry nights. This means that you’re not getting the restful sleep that your body needs to function effectively. Not sleeping enough can also cause feelings of exhaustion. 

Interesting fact, the same hormonal factors that control hunger are the same ones that affect your ability to sleep soundly. Your brain relies on these hormones in order to switch off so it can rejuvenate during the night.

The solution here is two-fold:

1) Get more quality sleep. It might help to focus on:

  • sleep hygiene
  • limiting caffeine intake, 
  • limiting screen time an hour before bedtime, and
  • sticking with a routine for bedtime and wake time

2) Eat more during the day.

You need to have enough energy for all your activities so that you are able to rest at night. One important component might be getting enough protein because of the tryptophan-serotonin content. 

 

Tryptophan 

Tryptophan is a naturally occurring amino acid found in many foods, including turkey, eggs, and other animal products. It’s also a building block for serotonin, which is an important neurotransmitter that helps regulate moods and sleep cycles.

This means that tryptophan has the potential to induce restful sleep by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. In theory, this might make it easier to fall asleep at night without needing any help from drugs or alcohol. However, there are no conclusive studies on whether or not taking tryptophan supplements actually improves one’s quality of sleep.

However, getting enough tryptophan in your diet might help prevent feeling hungry at night and have a more restful response at night. You can find high amounts of this amino acid from many foods including: turkey, chicken, fish, pork, beef. Other sources include soybeans and quinoa.

 

Coping with Challenging Emotions Hungry at Night

Another reason you might be struggling with hunger at night may relate to coping with difficult or overwhelming emotions. You might have read all the content above and think to yourself: “Nope, I eat enough throughout the day. I feel full after my meals so why am I always hungry at night?!”

Let’s take one moment here to check where you are emotionally. Here at Nutriving, we have expressed our views regarding emotion and eating food. We believe that these things are interconnected. We are human beings who celebrate, mourn, and seek comfort with food. This is not inherently bad! It’s just human! There is honestly nothing more normal than to want to seek comfort in food.

The problem lies when we do not have any other tool in our emotional toolbox to help us cope with difficult emotions. This is when we solely utilize food as a method of comfort and then we find ourselves feeling bad physically after eating more than our bodies need.

If you’re going through something that is challenging and difficult for you, and you are missing other coping mechanisms to help you manage the stress, it might be time for some help. Therapy might be a good fit. Talking to a friend. Writing things down. We need to add more tools to your emotional toolbox to deal with hard feelings. It’s okay that food is one of those tools. It’s not great when that’s the ONLY tool.

tool box- hungry at night

Conclusion 

The hungry feeling you have at night might not be caused by the food you ate. Instead, it may be an issue with your emotions or sleep patterns that can lead to a lot of other health problems if left unchecked. We hope this article has been enlightening and we encourage any readers who are struggling with these issues to reach out for help in order to find a healthy solution!

 

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I am a Registered Dietitian (RD) based in Chicago, IL. I have worked in various clinical settings including dialysis, ICU, and NICU. I am bilingual and have had the pleasure to work with many Spanish/Spanglish speaking individuals.