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What to eat (and not eat) when you wake up hungry in the middle of the night

Waking up hungry? These midnight snacks are RD approved.

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Waking up hungry? Here's what to eat when you're hungry and can't fall back asleep.

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A new year often means you're setting healthier habits and for many people, that means cleaning up your diet. Trading in fast food, junk food and processed foods for whole, natural foods can pay off big time for your health and wellness goals. But one thing that might happen when you change your eating habits is not so good (or expected) -- waking up at night because you're hungry. 

Waking during the night can happen for a number of reasons -- but if you notice you're waking up and feeling hungry, it's likely that something is off in your diet and you might need to change your nutrition habits so you can sleep better at night. To get more insight on how to navigate this, I talked to Jaclyn London, a dietitian and head of nutrition and wellness for WW.

Why you could be waking up hungry during the night

Waking up hungry in the middle of the night is frustrating, especially if you think you are eating enough throughout the day. According to London, what you eat during the day can definitely impact you later at night, but so can other factors like when you eat and how often. 

"So many factors could be at play here, but the one I've seen most common[ly] in practice is with people who have recently shifted their routine as it relates to physical activity [like] training for an event, such as a marathon or triathlon, or simply just starting a new exercise regimen that you're less accustomed to," says London. Even though there are several factors that could be behind what's waking you up, London says the following scenarios are other things to consider.

You're not eating enough during the day: "This is a likely cause if you're someone who recently changed (leveled up) their physical activity schedule, started a training routine, or [started doing] anything with high-to-moderate intensity for a prolonged duration that's new for you," says London.

You're eating enough, but you're not eating satisfying meals and snacks (especially at dinner): "In both research and in private practice, I've seen this pattern come up frequently when we're eating and feel physically full, but not all that satisfied -- or simply feel like we have 'two stomachs' or that nothing is satisfying! You're more likely to experience this one if you often drink your calories in the form of smoothies, or if you're following an eating style that puts limits on macronutrients (carbs, protein or fat) that are restrictive for you. Eating combinations of protein and fiber at meals and snacks can help to promote satiety on the whole and help to maintain your energy levels throughout the day (without feeling ravenous at night)," London explains.

You've experienced a shift in your "normal" habits around meal times and/or bedtime. "This may be obvious, but it's worth noting that if you bump up your dinner time significantly (to an earlier time of day), your body may think it's time for breakfast in the middle of the night (thus, the cause of your hunger!). If this is bothering you or you're keen on adjusting to a new schedule, I'd recommend having a snack about 30 minutes before bedtime (examples below of protein and fiber-providing snack combos that are low in fat). Or, you might consider having half of your dinner at your normal time, and the second half an hour or so later in the evening," says London.

Finally, don't forget to rule out dehydration and make sure you're staying well hydrated throughout the day. "It may be that you're not drinking enough during the day, which can often result in feelings of hunger that are making it less obvious to you that you're actually super-thirsty," says London.

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Whole-grain cereal with milk is a good midnight snack, according to London.

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The best foods to snack on when you wake up at night 

When you wake up hungry in the middle of the night, you're likely not thinking about what the healthiest snack option is, but about what's the tastiest and most convenient. Before you grab those cookies or chips, keep these tips in mind for a snack that is balanced and won't keep you from being able to fall back asleep. 

Choose a snack that is low in fat and has some carbs and protein

"I'd recommend choosing a snack that's low in fat and provides some carbs and protein, like whole-grain (unsweetened) cereal with milk; some nonfat/low-fat yogurt with fruit, or you might find that a cup of tea with 1 full cup of milk can be both soothing and hydrating and give you enough protein to help you feel a little bit more satisfied," says London.

Eating too much fat in the middle of the night is not ideal for digestion, especially if you have GERD or are prone to heartburn, says London. "Since fat may take a bit longer to make its way through your stomach and digestive tract (you absorb most of the nutrients you get from food in your small intestine into your bloodstream), the idea is to not give your body more "work" to do if your goal is to fall asleep," she explains. 

Avoid foods that can trigger heartburn or digestive issues

You also want to avoid anything that could upset your stomach, or something that you're not used to eating. "Depending on your personal tolerance, I'd advise against anything too high in synthetic fiber or sugar alcohols, often found in packaged, processed snacks (like bars or meal replacements). These can keep you up or disrupt your sleep further by causing GI discomfort," says London. Other things to avoid are spicy foods, tomato-based foods, chocolate, peppermint and citrus, which can all trigger heartburn, according to London.

With these tips in mind, below are several examples of snacks that London recommends that are nutritionally balanced and likely won't disrupt your sleep further.

  • Toast with a little bit of butter and jam
  • Whole-grain crackers with part-skim cheese
  • Low-fat cottage cheese with fruit 
  • A packet of instant oatmeal or hot cereal
  • Cold whole-grain cereal with a cup of milk. "This is my go-to recommendation (and personal favorite) -- the beauty of this pseudo-breakfast is that it'll provide some protein to promote satiety; a little bit of fiber (without prolonging digestion too much, which could also have the effect of keeping you awake) and is just satisfying enough for when you're hungry but still want to set yourself up for a day of consistent, satisfying meals and snacks," says London.
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.