Let’s paint a picture: you’ve eaten well all day, just had dinner a few hours ago and were feelin’ pretty good, and then—BAM—you’re like a rabid raccoon searching for any sweets you can get your hands on. Sound familiar?
Yeah, we’ve all been there. “Nighttime is by far the most common time to have cravings or feel hungrier,” says Scott Isaacs, MD, an endocrinologist at Emory University and author of Beat Overeating Now!
First, let’s de-bunk the myth that you can’t eat after 8 p.m. I can’t tell you how many people ask me if it’s okay to eat late at night; everyone thinks that it will all be stored as fat because you won’t burn it off while you sleep. This is very false. Time of day doesn’t matter. What does matter is your total daily calorie intake. Eating at night does NOT mean it will get stored as fat as long as your total daily calorie intake is within the proper range. Your metabolism still works while you sleep, it just works more slowly. So, if you eat late at night, you may still feel a bit full when you wake up in the morning because your body is still digesting, but it’s not necessarily turning into fat. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about why we get these cravings.
1. Cravings are often a sign that your body is missing something, like a vitamin or mineral!
Craving sweets is a sign of blood-sugar instability, so reach for a piece of fruit or a complex carb like whole grains to stabilize blood sugar.
Chocolate cravings are a sign of magnesium deficiency. Surprisingly, most Americans are deficient in magnesium, so that might explain why we love chocolate so much ;) If you must have chocolate, choose dark chocolate that is at least 80% cacao. It is higher in anti-oxidants and lower in sugar. The better option would be to grab a handful of nuts and seeds. I find these to be great craving-busters at night!
Salt cravings are a sign of stress! If you start craving salty foods, check yourself and analyze how stressed you are. Try stress management techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or another form of stress relief that you enjoy. Researchers show that people who regularly participate in stress management are 25% less likely to binge on chips and salty snacks.
Cravings for red meat might mean you need more iron. There’s no shame in eating a lean burger or steak! You could also try beans or dried fruit (just not a lot due to the high sugar content). If you crave cheese you could be deficient in fatty acids, in which case walnuts would be a great snack! You can also try supplementing with an omega-3 supplement like fish oil.
Craving carbs like pasta and bread is also a sign of blood-sugar fluctuation or possibly a chromium deficiency. In which case, eating more fiber and foods high in chromium such as bananas, apples, spinach or avocado can help!
Lastly, most cravings are actually a sign of dehydration! Next time a craving hits, try drinking a large glass of water and see how you feel.
2. Our circadian rhythm significantly influences our hunger levels: At Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a study was conducted to track how circadian rhythms impact food behaviors. They found that regardless of what time the subjects woke up or when they had their last meal, their cravings and hunger peaked around 8 p.m. Our bodies are hard-wired to want sugary, salty, and starchy foods at night. This explains how I rarely eat cereal, yet come 8 o’clock I can’t keep my out of the Vanilla Chex box…at least I can blame nature for that ;)
3. You may be low in Serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, sleep, and various elements in the endocrine system. When we taste a sweet bite of sugar, our Serotonin levels rise. So, if you’re craving sugar, this could be the reason.
4. You may have an unstable blood sugar: If you are not properly fueling your body, your blood sugar will dramatically rise and fall throughout the day, causing mood swings, irritability, and cravings. When your blood sugar drops, you start to crave sugar and you crave it HARD, so you likely reach for a snack high in refined sugar. This then causes your blood sugar to rise dramatically, but this is only temporary as refined sugar digests very quickly, so your blood sugar will drop again in about an hour.
-Eat breakfast: When you eat breakfast within 90 minutes of waking up, this helps to get your circadian rhythm in line so that come night-time, you won’t have such bad cravings. Just make sure to skip the sugary cereals and refined breads. Eggs are a great way to start the morning because they have plenty of protein, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats.
-Eat regularly: don’t let yourself get too hungry between meals. If you let yourself go too long, your blood-sugar gets out of whack, which could also cause you to binge when you finally do eat. I like to eat every 4 hours or so, but it’s highly individual. The key is just to not let yourself get famished.
-Eat plenty of protein and good fats: not only do these foods keep you full, but they also don’t cause blood-sugar spikes.
-Go to bed earlier: not only will you be asleep while the cravings hit, but also, getting enough sleep is proven to help you make healthier choices throughout the day.
While cravings are completely natural, and in many cases it may be good if we give-in to them, there is usually always a healthier option to give our body what it needs and regulate our late-night cravings!