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Why you feel hungry late at night — and how to curb cravings

Halt those cravings and get back to sleeping soundly.

Why You Feel Hungry Late at Night and How to Curb Cravings | Juniper

You're lying in bed or relaxing on the sofa when suddenly, you hear a suspicious growling noise. No, it's not the dog — you already put it to bed (or perhaps you don't even own a dog!). It's your stomach, deciding that 11pm is a convenient time to demand to be fed.

Not only is late-night hunger frustrating, but it can rob you of your hard-earned sleep — especially when it's accompanied by that uncomfortable gnawing feeling in the gut.

When you're feeling famished, it can be tempting to raid the snack drawer to quiet your stomach. Unfortunately, if you're trying to lose weight, chowing down on a midnight snack can sabotage all your hard work during the day and disrupt your digestion.

What's far more beneficial is to get to the bottom of why you're so hungry at night. By addressing the root cause, you can curb those late-night cravings and get back to sleeping soundly.

Read on for everything you need to know about nighttime eating — from why it happens, how to manage it, and what to reach for when you really do need that late-night snack.

What causes hunger at night?

Physiological hunger is a completely natural, healthy, and normal process. In fact, it's necessary to keep us alive. When our stomach is empty, insulin levels dip, and our bodies produce a hormone called ghrelin [1]. This creates that 'hunger pang' feeling in the stomach (often accompanied by that growling or gurgling noise), which signals that it's time to eat.

If you eat at regular meal times guided by circadian rhythm, you'll often find that this hunger strikes roughly in the morning, noon, and early evening. However, if you find yourself particularly hungry at night (especially if it's after you've already had dinner), this is a sign that something could be awry.

Some potential causes of nighttime hunger include:

Not eating enough during the day

While skipping breakfast or drastically cutting calories can seem like a surefire way to lose weight, this can come back to bite us. If we’re ignoring our body's hunger cues during the day, we often end up overcompensating at night.

And, because it’s far more difficult to eat mindfully in front of the TV (which is what many of us are doing at this time), we often end up consuming more calories than we normally would [2].

Not only that, but because our energy levels and willpower are depleted by the end of the day, we often end up making poorer food choices (think, heavy carbs and high fat, sugary foods). While you don’t necessarily have to follow the typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner schedule if that doesn’t suit your lifestyle, it's typically more beneficial to consume multiple, smaller meals during the day. 

Nutritional deficiencies

If you find you have intense cravings for particular foods, such as something sweet or salty, it might be your body trying to send you a message. Perhaps you’re consuming plenty of calories during the day, but aren't eating particularly satisfying meals.

For example, eating leafy salads for every meal is a great way to get your greens in. However, if you’re not consuming enough lean protein sources, you might find that you’re low in iron — which can leave you feeling hungry, and affect your sleep.

Eating a nutritionally balanced diet is important for feeling satiated, so consider consulting with a registered dietitian if you suspect you may be lacking.

Underlying health issues 

Being constantly hungry — especially if it’s waking you up during the night — can be a sign that your body isn’t functioning optimally. Poor thyroid function is a health concern that can lead to nighttime hunger, as this butterfly-shaped gland plays an important role in regulating your appetite [3].

Other health issues that can lead to nighttime waking include autoimmune diseases, adrenal fatigue, and insulin resistance [4]. In these cases, medically-based treatments like Juniper’s Weight Loss Reset Programme can target these underlying causes and help stabilise your appetite.

Emotional eating

Sometimes, being hungry at night isn't actually a physiological sensation, but emotional. During the day, many of us are distracted by work and other obligations. But, when we have a moment to ourselves, we can find ourselves reaching for food to process any emotions we've been ignoring — such as sadness, loneliness, and anxiety.

If you're already consuming enough calories in the day, you may find it beneficial to find other outlets to self-soothe, such as meditation, journalling, listening to music, or calling a friend. However, if this issue is ongoing, it's best to chat with a mental health professional about how you're feeling.

Night eating syndrome

Affecting 1% of people, night eating syndrome (NES) is a recognised eating disorder, where people wake up multiple times throughout the night to eat [5]. Doctors believe this is linked to hormonal imbalances and disruptions to the sleep-wake cycle, and it is often accompanied by insomnia, depression, and obesity.

As this requires professional medical treatment, it's important to speak to a doctor if you believe you may suffer from NES.

Is eating at night bad?

There's nothing inherently wrong with eating at night. After all, dinner is a cornerstone of many of our daily routines for a reason — eating a delicious, nutritious meal can actually increase serotonin in the brain, which helps us drift off to sleep.

There are also plenty of valid reasons for eating late, such as being a shift worker, or a disrupted schedule due to having a newborn baby.

Sure, for those of us on more typical schedules, calories consumed during waking hours are more likely to be burnt off during the day. However, generally speaking, a calorie consumed at night is no different from a calorie consumed during the day — and it won't necessarily make you gain weight.

That said, eating a heavy bedtime snack can create digestive issues, which can be problematic. The digestion process demands a lot of hard work from your body, which means redirecting resources that could otherwise be spent on helping us get a good night’s sleep.

So, even if satiating your appetite with a bag of chips or half a punnet of ice cream helps you fall asleep, you may find that you toss and turn. Having a poor night's sleep can also lead to an increased appetite, which can create a vicious cycle where you overeat the next day, too [6].

Lying down immediately after eating can also restrict the flow of food through the digestive system, which can leave us with acid reflux, or feeling full, bloated, and gassy — not exactly conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Plus, research has found that people who eat between the hours of 11pm and 5am are likely to consume 500 more calories than those who keep intake to daytime hours — which can obviously wreak havoc on weight loss results [7].

As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to time your last meal of the day around 2-3 hours before you plan to go to bed.

What to eat if you're hungry at night

There may be occasions where late-night snacking is a non-negotiable. Perhaps you've had a particularly busy day and haven't had a chance to eat, or you've just returned from a night out.

In these situations, what you eat matters. Your best bet is to go for something that's satiating, but easy to digest. Typically, that will look like lean protein, healthy fats, and minimally processed carbs. It's also wise to steer clear of spicy foods and added sugar.

Some quick, easy options include:

  • A piece of whole grain toast with nut butter
  • Blueberries or apple slices with Greek yogurt
  • Whole grain crackers with cottage cheese and turkey (a great source of tryptophan, which is known to promote sleep)
  • Banana with peanut butter
  • Hummus on rice crackers
  • Tomato slice, lightly drizzled in olive oil
  • A meal replacement shake, like Juniper's Nourish Shake, which is packed with 20 minerals and vitamins

These tasty meals and snacks are sure to promote satiety and get you back to sleep in no time. Herbal teas are also a great option, for when you're feeling peckish but don't actually want to eat — just make sure to go for ones with no caffeine.

How do I stop feeling hungry at night?

The best way to ward off nighttime hunger is to look at the big picture of your food intake and lifestyle. Are you listening to your body's signals, and consuming enough food? Do you enjoy satisfying meals, regularly throughout the day?

Are you adequately hydrating your body? (after all, sometimes what we perceive as hunger is actually just thirst). Do you have a relaxing evening wind-down routine in place? All of these factors play an important role in managing your hunger levels during the day.

Another great starting point is to understand how many calories you actually need to consume to function optimally. Based on your weight, height, and activity level, your BMR (basal metabolic rate) is the amount of calories your body burns naturally throughout the day.

Typically, this is the bare minimum calorie intake you need to fuel your body and feel satisfied. If you regularly participate in physical activity, this should be taken into account, too. If you’re trying to lose weight, you typically need to be in a slight calorie deficit. However, most experts recommend not reducing this intake by more than 500 calories per day [8].

A meal plan is also an excellent tool, to help make sure you're consuming enough calories while avoiding weight gain. However, everyone's needs are different, and it can be difficult to know where to start. There are also many other factors that can affect your ability to lose weight.

Juniper's Weight Reset Programme takes a comprehensive and holistic approach, combining pharmacist-prescribed weight loss medication with 1:1 support and coaching from a dietitian. With these tools at your fingertips, you'll go to bed feeling satisfied, comfortably full and proud of your progress towards your goals.