It’s 11:45 p.m. and you’re seconds from crawling under the covers when you’re suddenly overwhelmed by a strong craving for Oreos and peanut butter. That’s fair enough once in a while, especially if you’ve recently rewatched Lindsay Lohan combining these two foods in The Parent Trap. But if getting out of bed for a snack has become a regular occurrence, you might be wondering why you’re always hungry at night and why it’s usually for something decadent. Many people are sporadic nighttime grazers, but if your body is giving you hunger cues every night, there might be more to it than a case of unyielding sweet tooth.
Let’s say you typically eat a decent-sized supper, but it doesn’t seem to matter what you eat or how much — you’re consistently starving by 9 p.m., night after night. It’s possible that this tendency to mosey on over to the kitchen come nightfall happens out of habit. Maybe you come from a household where, growing up, your family sat down to dinner at a set time and would indulge in dessert at another set time. Years later, you’re still replicating that routine, even if you’re the only one in your household up for a nighttime treat. But it’s also possible that there is more going on.
Late-Night Hunger Could Be Partially Genetic
While there are a plethora of factors that might explain why you tend to get hungry at night, one study says late-night hunger might have a lot to do with your body’s internal clock. In 2013, researchers from Oregon Health & Science University and Harvard University found that your circadian rhythm — a.k.a. your body’s internal clock that ticks and tells you when it’s time to go to sleep and wake up — is partly to blame. According to the study, published in the journal Obesity, your circadian rhythm might provoke intense cravings for sweet, salty, and starchy foods at night. Why would your body do such a thing to you? Well, per the study, it’s likely that late-night hunger once helped our ancestors load up on calories during times of food scarcity.
Now, you might be wondering, how is it even possible for your stomach to behave the same way the stomach of your caveman brethren operated? According to Prevention, the researchers involved in this study took a group of volunteers and housed them in a hotel-like lab where their cellphones, TV, and internet privileges were taken away for two straight weeks. They weren’t even allowed visitors or friends, so basically, all they could do was sleep or eat. The lights were strategically dimmed so that participants couldn’t tell the difference between daytime or nighttime. This effectively reset their internal clocks to a blank slate. For the duration of their stay, experts evaluated their sleep and eating habits. It turns out the participants were actually hungriest at nighttime, regardless of when they slept or woke.
Hunger At Night Might Also Be A Reflection Of Your Daytime Eating Habits
While it’d be nice to blame your late-night hunger entirely on your ancestors, unfortunately, your behavior and eating habits typically have something to do with your cravings. When Yasi Ansari, MS, RDN, CSSD, works with a client who frequently finds themselves getting intense food cravings in the evening, she says she likes to ask them a few questions, starting with, “Are you eating enough during the day?” More often than not, undereating is the culprit.
“If I observe that someone is skipping meals or snacks, going too long without eating, or not eating enough earlier in the day, I often find that not eating enough is what is causing them to get more hungry at night,” Ansari tells Elite Daily. She might also ask clients if they’ve increased their activity level, as working out more than usual — especially if you haven’t accordingly increased the amount of food you eat in a day — can lead to late-night hunger.
Another potential culprit: You haven’t been sleeping enough. “Not getting enough sleep can affect hunger and fullness hormones that are disrupted throughout the day,” Ansari told Elite Daily. “Ghrelin increases when we don’t get enough sleep, so you may be hungrier than usual at night.”
But say you’re consuming plenty of nutrients during the day, and you’re getting plenty of sleep. According to health coach and dietitian Jessica Cording, you might not be eating enough of a variety of different food groups. There's a reason why your doctor suggests eating a well-balanced diet and drinking a ton of water: It's because all of these different food groups will collectively nourish your body and keep you satiated. So take note of the amount of proteins, healthy fats, and high-fiber foods you're eating throughout the day. Cording suggests trying not to fill up on too many simple carbs (for example, sugary treats like cookies and cereal), because "your body burns through [them] really quickly."
But let's say you've made absolutely sure you've incorporated a wide variety of different fruits, veggies, and complex carbs into your diet. You ate until you were comfortably full at every meal, and you made sure to follow a schedule. If, despite taking all the necessary precautions, you're still hungry at night, Mitzi Dulan, RD, CSSD, says you're probably just bored.
"[Nighttime] is usually a time when people get hungry because they’re bored," Dulan tells Elite Daily. "Oftentimes it’s more of a boredom hunger because you’re sitting in bed and your mind wanders, and you think about food." You’re lying in bed thinking, “Why do I get hungry at night?” while you visualize the snacks in your fridge. If you can’t sleep, you may ultimately decide to go get a snack instead.
What To Do When The Late-Night Cravings Strike
There’s nothing wrong with indulging in a little something sweet at night. But there are things you can snack on late at night that are good for your body (while still satisfying your sweet tooth).
Grace Derocha, a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and certified health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, tells Elite Daily that while you should definitely take your cravings into consideration, the later it gets, the healthier your snack should be so that your body isn't struggling to break things down overnight. Snacks that are light but still delicious, such as cottage cheese and fruit, apple slices dipped in peanut butter, carrots and guac, or even a smoothie, are all options here, says Derocha. The goal is to eat something nutritious and tasty so your cravings are curbed and you can go to bed feeling satisfied.
When you decide to, say, eat an entire DiGiorno pizza or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s at 1 a.m., your sleep quality will probably suffer. “You may find yourself tossing and turning after eating a large meal, a spicy meal, or a meal with ingredients that take longer to digest, which can make it challenging to get a good night’s rest,” says Ansari, who echoes Derocha’s suggestion to reach for lean proteins, fruits, or veggies if hunger strikes. After all, disrupting your sleep schedule is the last thing you want to do — not getting enough sleep can lead to late-night cravings, remember? An endless cycle!
Ultimately, it’s a balance between treating yourself and nourishing your body, and you can totally do both. Next time you can’t stop thinking about food when you should be sleeping, have some easy-access options on hand so you won’t have to make an entire PB&J at 3 a.m. Your housemates will thank you later.
Scheer, F. A. J. L., Morris, C. J., & Shea, S. A. (2013). The internal circadian clock Increases hunger and appetite in the EVENING independent of food intake and other behaviors. Obesity, 21(3), 421–423. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.20351
Jessica Cording, health coach and dietitian
Grace Derocha, registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and certified health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan
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