The science behind late night cravings

Published 15.06.2015 21:55
Updated 29.06.2015 23:59

Late night snacking is a bad habit, but it is scientifically proven that our internal clock sometimes causes us to crave sugary or salty snacks after dark. Although it may seem necessary, it can be a symptom of an unhealthy lifestyle that could lead to obesity

Recently, I hear more and more from my patients that they are snacking at night even though they do great at watching what they eat during the day. There might be a lot of reasons behind this, but overall we call this problem a bad habit. As a doctor, I can say that it is actually more than just habitual stimulation. Either your nights are not busy and planned or you just like eating something sweet after dinner. Whichever way you look when searching the causes of late night snacking, all the findings point to an unhealthy lifestyle. Moreover, some of the latest scientific evidence actually shows that our bodies may be really programmed to crave sugary stuff after dark.

Let's go on and see the scientific story behind this. A research article published in the medical literature journal Obesity reveals that our internal clock, which is the timekeeper for the circadian rhythm, urges us to look for starchy, salty and sugary snacks in the evening. Scientists also mention that this self-stimulus comes around 8:00 p.m., typically around the time that our metabolism slows down and melatonin hormone secretion starts. Scientists hypothesize that this urge is due to our body's protective response for storing fat during the night for the times when you have no food. But with today's lifestyle, this urge could cause a complication for the waistline. In today's world, we do not eat what our ancestors ate, so the bill to pay due to late night snacking on health may be higher than you think.

Do you also snack at night, even after a huge dinner? Or do you find yourself sitting next to the refrigerator trying to choose what to eat in the middle of the night? Well you are not alone for sure. Millions of people suffer from this distressing problem that could even lead to obesity, diabetes and possibly depression. For the majority of all who read this article, lets get on with tips for fighting this habit and mention healthier options to those who cannot quit.

The underlying scientific cause of late night snacking is an imbalance of hormones that regulates neuroendocrine metabolism. In simple words, chemical signals that control the appetite and metabolism go wild. Each of these hormones has a specific role on controlling how, when, what and how much we eat. Understanding their roles and eating with knowledge will help to keep them under control, and by this way you may not have any more cravings. The four hormones that regulate our satiety center and metabolism are insulin, leptin, ghrelin and peptide YY. Their specific roles are different from one another. Insulin processes sugar. Insulin levels in the blood spike after a huge junky meal full of carbohydrates, but crashes after a quick spike. This crashing makes us hungry, regardless of the quality of what we eat. Leptin works closely with insulin and signals to the brain that the stomach is full enough. But the problem is generally with this hormone, either there is too much but the receptors are not sensitive or not enough is produced to pass the satiety threshold, which means the brain could become resistant to leptin. The reason behind this resistance is consuming a lot of sugar, processed foods and starchy foods. Ghrelin is the hunger hormone and tells the brain that you should eat. Lastly, peptide YY is produced in the intestines and also signals the brain that you should eat. Can you think of an imbalance between all of this, frightening isn't it? The story is not over, there is also cortisol, the stress hormone, which also has some business to do with the satiety center. When stressed, cortisol climbs up and we get hungry and crave sugar.

The key strategy to stop late night cravings is to eat a good breakfast. But most of those who eat at night wake up full so that they do not eat breakfast. This habit needs to be broken to eat a healthy, full-size breakfast. The best option is to go with high protein food options, most particularly eggs. By eggs I do not mean the whites only, I mean whole eggs. Both the whites and the yolks have different and valuable benefits. Add fruit, diary and complex carbohydrates to a breakfast to get all that is needed for the early hours at work. Additionally, eating a proper breakfast will keep blood sugar and hormones level all day.

Do not drink up calories. That being said, any type of drink that has calories should be avoided to maintain stable blood glucose levels. All sugary drinks, including fresh squeezed fruit juices, will cause a spike in blood glucose levels, and the crash that comes after will cause cravings. Eat protein and good quality fats with each meal. The combination of proper nutritional elements also keep hormone levels stable. When it comes to stress, we need to find a rescue button that will relieve it. Stress will cause us to eat more and more, making us fatter. Learn what helps you to relax, if you want to relax by eating as well then go for foods rich in vitamin C. Science has shown that vitamin C is great at reducing cortisol levels. Prioritizing sleep is also important, since more sleep means less eating time. Not necessarily of course, but people who don't sleep tend to feel more hungry and crave carbohydrates more compared to normal sleepers. Science shows that sleep deprivation results in ghrelin synthesis, and this translates into hunger signals to the brain. So, go ahead and sleep it off.

If you still want to snack at night, or it is cultural for your, then go ahead with these examples that will protect you and your waistline. Two cups of air popped oil and salt-free popcorn is a good option, plain yogurt topped with blueberries, hummus, a banana, pineapple, vegetables dipped in yogurt, and for ice cream junkies the best option would be frozen homemade apple sauce. Bon appetite.

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