Do you find your mind overcome with an intense desire for salty sweet, starchy or downright strange foods in the middle of the night? You are not alone. A recent study published in the journal Obesity shows that natural circadian rhythms signal your body to crave these types of foods in the evening.
This hard-wired behavior is in part an evolutionary response; eating late in the day causes the body to store more energy, which would have been useful to our ancestors in surviving times of scarcity. However, in today’s world, it often leads to unwanted weight gain.
“Our study suggests that because of the internal circadian regulation of appetite, we have a natural tendency to skip breakfast in favor of larger meals in the evening,” explains Steven Shea, Ph.D., senior author of the study and director for the Center of Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology at Oregon Health and Science University. “This pattern of food intake across the day is exactly what Sumo wrestlers do to gain weight.”
Shea adds, “while this may have been valuable throughout evolution, nowadays it is likely to contribute to the national epidemic of obesity… People who eat a lot in the evening, especially high-calorie foods and beverages, are more likely to be overweight or obese.”
Indeed, the way that the human body processes nutrients varies depending on what time of day it is. Eating calorie-rich foods soon before bed causes the calories to be stored, as we obviously do not burn as much energy while we rest and sleep.
Also, the body’s sugar tolerance is lower in the evening hours. While many of us feel like we ‘need’ the foods that we crave in those evening hours, studies have shown that cravings are NOT based on nutritional deficiency.
According to some studies, men tend to crave hearty, ‘dinner’ foods such as steaks, pizza and mashed potatoes, while women are geared more towards chocolate and ice cream fixes. There are several different theories as to why we get cravings, and why we crave what we crave.
Besides evolutionary calorie-storage, many cravings are based on learned behaviors, such as receiving sweets from our parents when we demonstrated good behavior as children.
Cravings may also stem from hormonal fluctuations, brought on by stress, sleep deprivation, or a woman’s menstrual cycle. These conditions can throw off your body’s natural balance of ghrelin, the hormone that signals hunger, and leptin, the hormone that signals fullness. Serotonin, estrogen and cortisol levels can also dictate certain cravings if they become unbalanced.
One other factor that can definitely cause cravings: advertising! Commercials, billboards and web ads blasting images of succulent-looking junk food all have the sole mission of making you crave what they sell. However, there is hope!
Developing healthy eating habits, as well as exercise habits, throughout the day can make late-night cravings a thing of the past. Aim to incorporate the following healthy habits into your daily life:
Eat breakfast within 90 minutes of awakening, and aim to make this your largest meal of the day. In the afternoon, eat a medium-sized lunch, and in the evening, a small dinner.
This practice keeps your blood sugar levels balanced, making you less hungry at night. Make sure to include lots of fruits and veggies, proteins and healthy fats in your meals, and especially see to it that your dinner is filled with healthy foods high in fiber.
Stay away from processed foods, especially those high in refined sugars and carbohydrates. These can lead to a quick ‘crash,’ and actually make you feel hungry again very soon after eating.
If at all possible, keep them out of your home entirely; if they’re not available to tempt you, you will have to choose another option – a healthy one if that’s what you have – if you do choose to snack.
Exercise every day; whatever method you choose. Physical exercise is crucial to proper digestion, stress relief and sound sleep. Studies also show that sleep deprivation raises ghrelin levels and lowers leptin levels, making you think you’re hungry even when you’re physiologically not.
Brush your teeth. It works! Besides food not tasting the same after that minty toothpaste, the extra hassle of having to do it all over again before bed is enough to deter many from a trip to the refrigerator.
If you make healthy habits your daily routine, with practice, you will have no need for those tasty-but-destructive late-night treats.
– The Alternative Daily