- There’s a way to determine if you were in a calorie deficit for the day, without any tedious tracking.
- It involves going to bed while slightly hungry, but not starving.
- I call it “snacking on sleep,” and it can help make reaching your nutrition-based goals feel less miserable.
Estimated reading time: 6-12 minutes
In 2022, I wrote an extensive, three-part series on my complicated relationship with counting calories. As a short summary, I have mixed feelings on this practice because of two simultaneous truths.
1. It is the only weight loss method that is guaranteed to work if done correctly. The need for a caloric deficit is an indisputable scientific fact at this point.
2. There are so many barriers to counting calories correctly that it can be a frustratingly tedious practice that sucks the joy out of life.
In the series, I dive into much more detail about calorie counting, how and when to do it properly, what you can do instead, and much more. You can check it out here, here, and here if you’re interested.
But for now, how do we reconcile that counting calories sucks but you also need to be in a caloric deficit to lose body fat? Well, I’d like to share a simple trick for determining whether you were in a calorie deficit for the day, zero tracking required.
I call it “snacking on sleep.”
Here’s the premise. When trying to lose body fat without subjecting yourself to the tyrannical tedium of calorie counting, aim to go to bed at a three out of ten on the hunger scale. This is no more than a mild level of hunger, accompanied by the feeling, “Eh, I could eat, but I don’t have to.”
I’ve written before that mastering the animalistic urge that is mild hunger, learning to live with it rather than treat it as a five-alarm emergency, is one of the most important skills one can develop. It makes maintaining or changing your body composition immeasurably easier.
To put this into practice, I often suggest that when pursuing fat loss, you schedule one to two hours of “Hungry Time” each day, during which you’ll plan to feel mildly hungry and just sit with that discomfort. You can certainly hydrate to blunt the sensations or distract yourself with other activities, but the point is to prove to yourself that hunger is not linear. It ebbs and flows, and sometimes even goes away if you wait long enough.
Realizing this makes it much easier to lose weight–if that’s your goal–and also to avoid gaining unwanted pounds when you’re in maintenance mode.
So, why does “snacking on sleep” work?
Let’s start with a concept I call “productive” vs. “nonproductive” food intake.
Incredible insight alert: our bodies need fuel in the form of food to perform physical work. And not just physical work. The brain burns about 20% of our total daily caloric intake just by thinking. Wild, right?
The point is, we need to do something with the calories we consume. When we eat in order to engage in activity, that would be “productive” food intake. Exhibit A: It’s breakfast time, we haven’t eaten in 10-12+ hours, and we have a fun hike planned for later. In this case, the body both currently needs fuel since it’s been a while since its last feeding, and there’s an upcoming activity that will require a great deal of energy.
On the other hand, eating half a bag of chips less than an hour before bed would be “nonproductive” food intake. There are no activities coming up that require food, and our nightly energy needs are covered, regardless.
We all store excess energy (calories) in the liver and muscles in a form called glycogen, and even more throughout the body as fat tissue. This is a bit of an oversimplification, as the body is constantly calculating from which source it should draw to meet its energy needs, but when there isn’t sugar from food in the bloodstream, the body dips into its glycogen and fat stores. Using up these stored calories is what ultimately leads to weight loss.
So, that’s where the beauty of “snacking on sleep” comes into play. The physical sensations of mild to moderate hunger are an indication from your body that you’re about to be in a small energy deficit. But that’s totally fine! Especially since you’re about to be sleeping, your body can use its stored glycogen and fat to meet its energy needs, and you’ll be no worse for the wear. In fact, if fat loss is your aim, you’ll be one day closer to achieving your goals.
So, if you’re a little bit hungry before bed, great! That means you’re probably in a small caloric deficit that will only grow bigger overnight. Repeat this enough times, and before you know it, the pounds will start to fall away.
To use this method properly, we also need to differentiate between hunger and cravings.
Hunger is a physical sensation, often felt in the stomach and experienced as non-specific. It is a general but quite physical experience of being low on fuel, so your body communicates that it needs some nourishment. With hunger, you won’t feel too picky. Sure, you’ll have preferences, but any number of options could satisfy you.
A craving, on the other hand, is much more thought-based. It is also highly specific, saying, “I won’t be satisfied until I experience this particular taste sensation over and over until I’m sick of it.” That last part is important, otherwise eating a single chocolate chip or one bite of ice cream would be enough to satisfy a sweet tooth. Unfortunately, we all know that’s not how it works.
Overcoming cravings is equally important as mastering mild hunger, and I’ve written more about that, right here. I simply bring this up as a reminder to focus on the physical, three out of ten hunger sensation before bedtime, not a thought that says, I really need some cookie dough before I go to sleep. That thought is wrong, and could occur even if you feel completely full. Unlike physical sensations of hunger, whether or not cravings occur has little to do with whether you are in a caloric deficit.
Okay, with all of that understood…
How Hungry is Too Hungry?
First, that three out of ten, “Eh, I could eat,” hunger intensity is vital. If you feel much more hungry than that, it will probably be harder to fall asleep. With that in mind, here’s where I have to admit something I’ve gotten wrong in the past.
The belief that, “Eating late at night will make you gain weight,” is a fairly prevalent one, and I used to vehemently push back when people would bring it up. I argued that ultimately, total caloric intake was what mattered most, and it didn’t matter if your final meal of the day was at 5 p.m. or 10 p.m. Now, that may technically be true, but it’s still “doing things the hard way.”
Eating less than two hours before bed has been linked to increased acid reflux, greater difficulty falling asleep, and increased likelihood of waking up in the middle of the night. And we don’t want to interfere with sleep quality. Sub-optimal sleep makes all health outcomes worse and hinders fat loss exponentially.
Last year, I saw the perils of late dinners firsthand.
For a few months in 2022, I wore an Oura Ring, which tracks multiple sleep metrics. Right off the bat, I learned that I’m extremely fortunate. My body is generally pretty efficient at resting, and it’s an absolute deep sleep machine. It averaged between two and two and a half hours of this highly important, most restorative type of sleep, even on nights when I’d only get seven hours in bed. Other metrics, like REM sleep, resting heart rate, Heart Rate Variability, and restfulness were also generally good to great.
In fact, the only metric on which I consistently lost points was “sleep latency,” a measure of how long it takes to fall asleep. Between ten and twenty minutes is considered optimal, and each night, like clockwork, I’d fall asleep about four minutes after I lay down. Now, as the Oura app told me, falling asleep after less than five minutes can indicate being overtired, and I suppose that’s possible. But, at the time, I was working out and working slightly less than usual, so I don’t think that was the case. Plus, just ask my dear younger brother what it was like to try to watch a movie with me even at the ripe old age of 20. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been notorious for falling asleep nearly as soon as my head hits the pillow.
Now, I share all of this not to brag about my body’s sleeping prowess, but to point out something hugely telling. Finely tuned sleep machine that my body seemed to be, one thing could consistently derail it.
Eating dinner after 6:30 p.m.
Whenever I did this, I’d experience the following:
- Less deep sleep
- Less REM sleep
- Longer sleep latency (taking longer to fall asleep)
- Lower Heart Rate Variability (higher is better)
- Higher resting heart rate
- Decreased restfulness
- Increased body temperature while sleeping
All of that, simply from eating a meal roughly three to four hours before going to sleep, even though conventional wisdom says a meal two hours before bed should be fine. So at least for me, even relatively late dinners were bad news. In light of that information, I do my best to finish eating before 6 p.m., especially on weeknights when I can’t sleep in the next morning. And sometimes, when 9 p.m. rolls around, I do feel those slight hunger pangs. But that offers the perfect opportunity to practice “snacking on sleep.” All of this could very well be true for you!
One Important Caveat
A few years ago, I knew a trainer who worked with a client with some extensive challenges around late-night eating. It was common for this person to wake up between 2 and 4 a.m., raid the fridge, and consume hundreds or even thousands of calories in the middle of the night. As you can imagine, that made progress towards nutritional goals rather unrealistic.
The trainer suspected that this habit stemmed from the client’s upbringing, during which extremely strict parents used to literally padlock the fridge closed and send them to bed without eating as a form of punishment.
For someone like this client, the idea of deliberately going to bed while hungry could be hugely emotionally triggering. And that hits at a vital point. Part of the reason so many people struggle with food intake is that in a moment of discomfort, eating something tasty is arguably the single most effective coping mechanism that exists. It’s also the one potential addiction that’s impossible to quit cold turkey.
So, for those who do struggle with late night eating, there may be more to unpack there. It also means this practice of “snacking on sleep” might not be for you, at least at first. The one piece of advice I have for those who feel as if they can’t sleep without eating right beforehand, or believe that a late night snack actually helps them fall asleep, is to try meditation instead. This practice will ultimately help you fall asleep quicker and improve your quality of sleep, which eating right before bed explicitly does not do. It’s kind of like drinking alcohol right before bed. You may lose consciousness quicker, but the quality of sleep is not nearly as restorative.
And ultimately, for those ready and willing to give “snacking on sleep” a try, it serves as a surefire way to determine whether you were in a caloric deficit for the day. It takes way less effort, no tedious tracking, and is way harder to screw up. The opposite is also true. If you went to bed feeling full to stuffed, you likely weren’t in a caloric deficit for the day. So, try replacing later day snacking with snoozing. You’ll be glad you did.
Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. Does the checklist I provided “check out” when it comes to other people who annoy you? If you’re comfortable sharing, what are some of the parts of your personality you’d like to work on? Reply to this email and let me know!