Got the Midnight Munchies? Here’s Why – and How to Handle Them

You do just fine during the day. You eat several small meals with protein-packed snacks squeezed between. You are “good” – you stick to your eating plan and your resolve and motivation are high. You even resist the mid-afternoon beckoning of the vending machine.

Yay, you!

You get home from work, eat dinner, relax, and get ready for bed.

So far, so good.

And then it hits you.

It seems to come out of nowhere. It’s irresistible. You just can’t fight it.

Next thing you know, you are burrowing through your refrigerator and pantry, looking for something – ANYTHING – to gorge on.

But nothing really satisfies you. You munch on random things – leftover pizza, Chinese food, cookies, ice cream…and none of it is cutting it.

You stuff yourself with whatever you can find and drag yourself to bed, full of sugar, fat, carbs, and self-loathing.

You wonder how you let this happen again.

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Researchers at Brigham Young University have shed new light on the reason so many of us binge at night: some areas of the brain don’t get the same “food high” in the evening.

Science Daily reports:

In a newly published study, exercise sciences professors and a neuroscientist at BYU used functional MRI to measure how people’s brains respond to high- and low-calorie food images at different times of the day. The results showed that images of food, especially high-calorie food, can generate spikes in brain activity, but those neural responses are lower in the evening.

The study also reports that participants were subjectively more preoccupied with food at night even though their hunger and “fullness” levels were similar to other times of the day.

The participants viewed 360 images during two separate sessions held one week apart–one during morning hours and one during evening hours. Subjects looked at images of both low-calorie foods (vegetables, fruits, fish, grains) and high-calorie foods (candy, baked goods, ice cream, fast food).

As expected, the researchers found greater neural responses to images of high-calorie foods. However, they were surprised to see lower reward-related brain reactivity to the food images in the evening.

Lead author Travis Masterson said, “You might over-consume at night because food is not as rewarding, at least visually at that time of day. It may not be as satisfying to eat at night so you eat more to try to get satisfied.”

“We thought the responses would be greater at night because we tend to over-consume later in the day,” said study coauthor Lance Davidson, a professor of exercise sciences. “But just to know that the brain responds differently at different times of day could have implications for eating.”

Masterson and Davidson also found that the participants were more distracted by food when they tested them in the evening, and thought they could eat more, even though their reported hunger and “fullness” levels were the same as during the day. On top of that, the study participants were told to avoid eating for certain periods before each test. “They should have been less hungry at night because the fasting period was shorter,” Masterson told CBS News. “We know that there is something going on here.”

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Now that you know what is causing your insom-nom-nom-nom-nia, what can you do to stop yourself from devouring everything in sight when the desire hits?

Masterson said that he feels a call to the fridge after-hours, “I tell myself, this isn’t probably as satisfying as it should be,” he said. “It helps me avoid snacking too much at night.”

Stocking your refrigerator and pantry with filling, yet low-damage foods can help.

Here’s a short list of ideas:

  • carrots and hummus
  • chocolate-dipped strawberries (six berries dipped in three squares of melted dark chocolate)
  • half a banana with nut butter (slice banana into circles, spread nut butter between two slices and freeze)
  • frozen grapes
  • fruit sorbet
  • pistachios (about 25 nuts – removing the shells will slow you down)
  • apple with almond butter
  • celery with peanut butter
  • cottage cheese

Keep high-calorie foods out of sight…or out of your house entirely. Prepare light snacks in advance so you are ready when late-night longings appear.

Additional Resources:

Super Paleo Snacks: 100 Delicious Gluten-Free Snacks That Will Make Living Your Paleo Lifestyle Simple & Satisfying

Wheat Belly Cookbook: 150 Recipes to Help You Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health

About the author

Lisa Egan

Lisa is a researcher and writer who lives in the outskirts of D.C. She has a BS in Health Science with a concentration in Nutrition. Lisa has worked as a personal trainer and nutritionist and is a certified hypnotherapist. She enjoys helping people learn about how to improve their health.

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