I took one small, fragrant pine cone, no longer than 2 inches, rolled it between my fingers to make sure it was clean, and proceeded to spread a thick layer of Nutella all over it. I used the knife to push as much of the chocolate spread as I could into every crevice.
Then I popped the whole thing into my mouth, reveling in the marriage of flavors and spitting out the pieces of pine cone as I chewed on this brutally tough but delicious object. Others need to try this, I thought, giddily frosting more pine cones and calling friends who seemed to be magically waiting on the sidelines.
Other strange food dreams came and went through the night, which was to be expected. I had had a busy few days and was so exhausted that I went to bed without eating any dinner.
What surprised me, however, was that I woke up without feeling ravenously hungry. Oh, I ate an ample breakfast, but it wasn’t as if I had to run downstairs and bury my face in a box of Frosted Flakes.
It made me think I should try going to bed hungry more often. Maybe dreaming about dinner is just as good — and far less caloric — than actually eating dinner. I don’t think my unfettered imagination is a very good chef, but if it would help me to keep my caloric intake down, then I guess I could choke down a few virtual pine cones.
I proceeded to do some research on sleep and weight loss and found it to be a much-discussed correlation. Specifically, a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in late 2010 suggests sleep-deprived people have more problems with weight gain and insulin resistance, and their bodies are more apt to metabolize muscle than stored fat. Not only that, they lack sufficient levels of the hormones that regulate appetite and satiation. Since World War II, Americans have been averaging fewer hours of sleep at night and growing steadily fatter.
But I haven’t found any studies that correlate hunger at bedtime and weight loss, though the subject is widely discussed on fitness and weight loss message boards. Many have discovered what I did — namely that you can sleep well after going to bed hungry. Several online posters attributed their personal weight loss to this trick.
A couple of days later, I decided to try again, this time on purpose. I ate a small dinner at about 5:30 p.m., picked up my children from their various activities and then settled into a TV show with my wife. I tried to resist all snacks and beverages save water. But in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit to eating not one but two Girl Scout cookies at about 10 p.m. I went to bed about midnight with a hunger pang and a sudden craving for barbecued ribs. Unfortunately, I had psyched myself out and dreamed I was talking to people about going to bed hungry. That night was like a food obsessive’s version of “Inception, ” with dreams within dreams about unattainable snacks, but thankfully no weird recipes inspired by backyard flora.
Going to bed hungry isn’t fun, but it isn’t bad once you’re there. And it’s probably a smart idea.
“Most people should go to bed a little hungry, ” says Dr. Michael Lacey, the medical director of the Atlanta Sleep Medicine Clinic. “The important thing is to have no significant caloric intake within three to four hours of bedtime.”
“It’s like turning down the pilot light on your furnace, ” Lacey adds. “Your metabolism ratchets down a bit as you sleep.”
That said, a little bedtime something-something probably won’t hurt you.
As long as you “burn more calories during the day than you take in, ” Lacey sees no problem with a small before-bed snack, as long as it’s neither too high in carbohydrates or protein, and it doesn’t contain alcohol or caffeine, all of which can cause sleep disruptions.
“If people need something before going to bed, I recommend a glass of milk and a cookie or cracker, ” says Lacey. The small amount of tryptophan in milk can help induce drowsiness.
I’m personally going to try to avoid any bedtime snacks for a while and see if I can learn to enjoy drifting off to sleep hungry. I might lose a little weight and, who knows, my unconscious mind might actually come up with a good recipe. Magnolia blossom fricassee, anyone?