Have you ever felt like your body has an internal “timer” that makes you crave snacks before bed? It turns out there’s some science behind this phenomenon. While many people blame that all-too-familiar “snack attack” that tends to hit between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on everything from boredom to lack of willpower, researchers have made some interesting discoveries that point to the idea that our internal clocks set the snack alarm for the evening hours.
If you believe the research, your own natural circadian rhythm may be behind the strong urge to snack that you can’t seem to shake. This is need-to-know information for anyone struggling to shake off the habit of snacking in the evening. While you may not be able to change the biological factors that drive humans to snack, understanding what your body is “looking for” when it compels you to grab for those chips or chocolate cookies could help you formulate a plan for achieving a better nutritional balance.
The Science Behind Evening Snack Attacks: How Circadian Rhythm Impacts Hunger Cues
One curious observation is that people don’t tend to be “ravenous” in the morning even though they’ve just fasted for roughly eight hours. In fact, breakfast is typically the smallest meal of the day for the average person. This fact led researchers to wonder why people aren’t at their hungriest in the morning.
It turns out that our natural circadian rhythm drives hunger in anticipation of overnight fasting. This is why it’s so common for people to get hungry before bed, even if they’ve eaten what would be considered adequate meals. What’s more, our hunger declines as the night goes on to stop hunger-induced wakefulness from disrupting our sleep.
For many people, the temptation to snack at night can feel a little bit like having a devil on their shoulder urging them to grab for those crunchy, sweet and salty treats. In reality, what’s happening to us on a biological level isn’t so far away from that imagery. The brain and body are conspiring to try to persuade you to “stock up” for the night.
It turns out that our bodies are smart enough to know that the most efficient way to “store up” calories before a fast is to eat high-calorie, high-fat foods. In fact, researchers were able to identify how our internal circadian rhythm actually induces cravings for sweets, salty foods and starchy foods. While this may seem frustrating when you’re trying to be disciplined about your diet, our bodies really are just trying to do us a favor!
There is an evolutionary advantage to having your largest meal of the day in the evening just before bed. During times of food shortages, eating the bulk of your calories just before bed allows you to store up energy overnight while you’re sleeping. That means that your body can distribute energy while it’s in a rest state. By contrast, food that is consumed in the morning can be burned off quickly.
The problem that many people run into when following the natural hunger cues that are dictated by the circadian rhythm is that they don’t necessarily need to store up energy while they sleep. In fact, this built-in hunger cycle that is intended to keep us alive in lean times may actually be putting our health at risk. There is evidence that consuming the largest meal of the day in the evening could be contributing to the rise of obesity in the United States.
Is there anything that we can do to ease the cravings that come knocking at night? According to researchers, hunger guided by the circadian rhythm occurs independently of other factors. However, maintaining a balanced, complete diet can make it easier to decipher the difference between “genuine” hunger and the body’s personal snack alarm.
Avoiding the Circadian Rhythm “Snack Trap”
Hint: Planning ahead is the key!
The best way to effectively fight an evening snack attack is to ensure that you’re getting appropriate nutrition the rest of the day. This will help you decipher between genuine hunger caused by the need for more calories and a biological urge to “load up” before fasting. If the theory regarding the circadian rhythm impacting hunger patterns is correct, everyone is hit regardless of how much they’ve eaten in a day. However, we can set ourselves up for extreme nighttime hunger if we haven’t adequately nourished our bodies during the day.
Start With a Solid Breakfast
Most people don’t crave a big breakfast. However, it’s still important to make sure that you’re planning a balanced, healthy breakfast that will help you power through the first portion of the day with the energy needed to fuel your brain and body. When planning breakfast, you want to avoid high-sugar, high-carb foods that will cause your blood sugar to spike and drop. This can be a recipe for feeling terrible before 10 a.m. In fact, having a sugary, “carby” breakfast can leave you in worse shape than not breaking your morning fast. That’s why things like protein, fruit and whole grains are commonly recommended as breakfast staples. It takes planning to get the right amount of protein and nutrition in the morning. It’s so easy to grab for something that’s “sweet and easy” without really paying attention to the nutrition label.
Plan a Snack-Busting Lunch
It’s the same story with lunch. If the goal is sustained energy using fresh ingredients and lean proteins, be smart about meal prep instead of falling prey to prepackaged foods that are easy to grab on the go. You also don’t want to skip lunch! Many people who do this assume that they will consume fewer calories over the course of a day. However, the circadian rhythm can come calling with a vengeance if we simply haven’t consumed enough calories during the day.
Strategize for Dinner
Dinner is the most important meal when it comes to battling the “circadian munchies” that come on strongly in the evening. Dinner is really the last defense against an overwhelming urge to snack due to the fact that it’s the last meal we’re having before we go into an overnight fast.
One of the best ways to stay feeling full and satisfied longer is to have healthy meals containing proteins and healthy fats. Things like chicken breast, avocado, steak and lentils can provide that sustained energy needed to fight off the urge to snack.
Based on what researchers think they have discovered about how the circadian impacts hunger, our body is truly trying to push us toward eating our highest concentration of calories just before bed. Feeling full and satisfied may make it much easier to resist cravings for sweet and salty foods that will fill in the nutritional gaps that our bodies are feeling if we haven’t eaten complete, balanced meals that offer adequate nutrition during the day.
What If You Want to Snack Before Bed?
It’s certainly not a crime to snack before bed. Of course, it’s essential to keep in mind evidence that routinely consuming foods just before bed may play a role in rising obesity rates. If you’d like to snack at night, you may be able to “hack” your body’s strong desire for calorie density by supplying it with highly nutritious snacks instead. In fact, keto and high-protein options can be excellent choices for giving your body fuel without excess sugar. Some nutritionally dense, highly satisfying evening snacks to consider are edamame, raw nuts, carrots and celery, chia pudding, a yogurt cup or a pumpkin muffin.
Knowing How Your Hunger Cues Work Can Help You Plan the Right Meals
Ultimately, researchers are still learning more about how a person’s circadian rhythm can impact hunger. However, there is some pretty strong evidence to suggest that a desire to snack in the evening is a biological reality that has evolved over time to help humans survive when food is scarce. While we can all marvel at the way the human body is capable of adapting to survive, we may not appreciate what feels like a hijacking of our self-control once 8 p.m. hits.
Like many things in life, maintaining a healthy and balanced diet takes planning. One of the best ways to fight back against circadian diet sabotage is simply to anticipate that cravings will hit as we settle in for the evening. We can use this knowledge to plan to have snacks that provide the right amount of nutrition to avoid grabbing for the sweet and salty goodies that we may not necessarily want to consume every night.
Being smart about making sure that we’re getting enough calories by consuming things like healthy fats, whole grains, vegetables and fruits can help us to avoid a feeling of being famished that’s going to supercharge our body’s existing inclination to stock up on calories just before our overnight fast. D