“Is there any pie leftover?” “Where’s that last piece of birthday cake?” “I know I hid that Halloween candy somewhere.” “I bet some cheese dip would be great with these potato chips.” Sound familiar? Most of us at one time or other have experienced the midnight munchies. We’re watching the end of the movie, almost ready to turn in, and all of a sudden we feel a mystical tug coming from the refrigerator or pantry. We don’t know what it is exactly, or at least not yet. But we’ll know it when we see it, or taste it. And, the more calories and fat, the more we’ll want to snack on it. Let’s learn a bit more about this crazy craving.
Are we hungry? Probably not. Chances are we’ve consumed enough calories throughout the day to meet our needs. What is probably happening is you are experiencing some late night cravings. What’s the difference? Hunger is about a very basic need for food in your stomach. When your body has depleted the food in your stomach, blood sugar and insulin levels drop, and your brain says you need something to eat to function. Again, this is a very basic need on a very basic level. Hunger originates in the stomach; an empty stomach. Nothing complicated about being hungry.
The complications start with cravings. Cravings originate in the brain. The ‘need’ you feel to dive into that bag of chocolate candy or potato chips stems from several brain functions, none of which are survival, at least not any longer. Scientists know this because the foods we crave most often (think mac ‘n cheese or chocolate) aren’t loaded with the nutrients we need in modern times. The fact is, the snacks we crave are most often high in calories and rich in two elements – fat and sugar. These elements were needed in prehistoric times by our ancestors, the hunters and gatherers of the day. Chances are, you are not spending hours every day running down game to eat. Why then do we still crave fat and sugar?
The Brain Double Whammy Attack
Physiologically speaking, it’s in our nature to snack, especially on foods that are rich in fat. When we snack on fatty foods, our brain receives a nod from the ‘opioids’ that have been released in the bloodstream, telling us that everything is going to be alright; another leftover from prehistoric days. If we had our fill of fatty foods, we knew we would survive the night. Today, when we enjoy our fatty snacks, our brain still processes the same message letting us know that everything is going to be fantastic! Our brain receives a message of pleasure and elation from these types of foods. This is a physiological response caused by the feel-good hormones released from these fat-rich foods.
Then we have the complicated science of psychology. Foods, especially those foods that are high in calories, fat, carbs, and sugar, give us the feeling of pleasure and satisfaction through our memory banks. We’re given a cookie when we’re still in our highchair. Eating the cookie causes the feel-good hormones to kick in, resulting in a pleasant state of being. We feel happy. We want another cookie so we can get that feeling again. We’ve got a double whammy of our brain receiving a chemical infusion of pleasure along with our intelligence connecting the dots between the cookie and the happy feeling. Two strong forces to deal with when it comes to controlling our eating habits.
What Can We Do?
With all this powerful brain stuff going on, how can anyone resist the urge to snack? We know a plate of celery sticks without the bleu cheese dip is just not going to cut it. We know a water cracker without cheese and sausage on top is a waste of time. We know that strawberry will be a disappointment if it’s not dipped in chocolate. So, how can we fight the unhealthy or diet-sabotaging nighttime snack attacks?
Studies in recent years have now shown that in order to stay away from unhealthy cravings, a person must enjoy a limited amount of the foods they crave. What these studies have found is that people who, for instance, completely refuse to eat any chocolate, crave more chocolate more often than people who enjoy a small portion of chocolate on a regular basis. A large percentage of the people in these studies who eliminate the chocolate entirely from their diet, end up eating more chocolate over time than the person who enjoys a piece from time to time. The more you restrict a food and repress the desire for it, the more you may crave it. In other words, give your brain what it craves once in a while and it will quit bugging you every night.
We have long known that cravings originate in the brain, not in the stomach. Now, science is catching up with this knowledge and studying it more closely than ever before. We know why we crave what we crave, and now we know how to handle the cravings. Give your brain small doses of the feel-good hormones and the message that you are not going to starve by planning snacks that satisfy your cravings. When not addressed properly, cravings can be much like a song stuck in your head. The good news is, if you understand what drives the craving, and why, you can get that snacking-song out of your head so you can stick to your healthy diet, and finally go to sleep!