Intuitive eating paired with flexible nutrition guidelines can help make sure your nutritional needs are being met throughout the day. Intuitive eating is an evidenced-based approach to eating where, instead of focusing on external food rules to guide your eating choices—say, like eating six small meals per day or cutting out sweets after 5 p.m.—one of the goals is to cultivate trusting your own body and instincts to determine when and what you eat. I’ve found intuitive eating can help us quiet the noise and tune into what habits help us feel our best.
With intuitive eating, instead of labeling nighttime hunger as “bad,” the focus shifts to how you’re feeling during mealtimes. Are you satisfied physically and mentally? Are you making food choices that reflect your unique needs, instead of what social media is telling you to eat? For people with a history of dieting and food restriction, intuitive eating can take time to adopt—and that’s where flexible nutrition guidelines come in. There is a place for structure and flexible meal planning with intuitive eating, and both can be incredibly helpful for making sure your needs are met.
Here are a few questions I recommend you ask yourself if you keep feeling famished as bedtime approaches:
1. What’s breakfast looking like?
Often overlooked, breakfast can set the tone for meal timing throughout the rest of the day. That’s because it helps your digestion get going early in the morning, which in turn influences hunger levels for the hours to come. Waiting several hours until your first meal can also result in feeling hungrier later in the day, which can affect eating into the later hours.
If you’re not used to eating in the mornings or don’t have much of a roadmap for when you eat throughout the day, breakfast can be a challenge. Initially, it may feel like you’re forcing yourself to eat without being hungry (doesn’t sound very intuitive, amiright?). However, with practice, your body will likely adjust. What’s more, you don’t have to eat a huge breakfast, especially if you’re not feeling it. You can start with smaller meals or a hearty snack instead of going all out with eggs, toast, and fruit. Experiment with yogurt or a fruit smoothie and see how you feel.
It’s also important to emphasize that there are no fixed rules with this, and if breakfast is still not vibing well with you, then you should honor that. Just keep in mind that if your goal is to stop feeling hungry before bed, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting enough nutrients through other meals and snacks for your nutritional needs.
2. What are you eating throughout the day?
Like I mentioned before, hunger before bed may simply be your body telling you that it requires more energy and nutrients. That’s likely to be the case if you are skipping meals, not having enough food during a given meal, not fueling properly with food before and after workouts, or if you have a medical condition or are on medications that increase appetite.
I recommend eating a minimum of three complete meals per day that include a balance of the three macronutrients: carbohydrates (including fiber), protein, and fat, which together will help you meet your daily energy needs. This can look like a tuna sandwich with a side salad or stewed chicken with curry vegetables and sweet potatoes. These meals can be as simple or elaborate as you want them to be.
Just keep in mind that a chicken salad without carbs or salmon with only roasted veggies probably won’t cut it. A balance of the three macronutrients is important for satiety. Generally speaking, a complete meal should keep you satisfied for about three hours. Then, depending on factors like exercise or medication (or whether you simply want to enjoy eating a snack), you may want to have additional food or snacks if you’re left feeling hungry in between meals.
3. Are you hungry or are you craving something in particular?
OK, so what if you’ve gone through the first two questions and have determined that you are nourishing yourself adequately, but you still feel hungry at night?