Don't Blame Yourself (Too Much) for Those Midnight Snack Attacks

Do you crave healthy stuff like yogurt and fresh fruit in the morning and then, as the day wears on, hanker for greasy, fatty, sugary foods like french fries and cookies at midnight? It might help your mood (if not your calorie count) to know that you are not alone.

Data collected by the consumer technology and wearable device company Jawbone indicates that most people start the day focused on eating dairy, fruit and grains. Then, as the hours creep by, our desire for those foods declines, and our interest in foods rich in oils, fats and sugars rises. Those less-healthy cravings hit a bump at about 4pm ("Snack Time!" Jawbone's number crunchers note) and rise precipitously after 8pm, peaking between about midnight and 4am before declining in time for breakfast the next day.

Other studies suggest that these late-night junk-food cravings may have a biological basis — that we may actually need the energy boost from high-cal foods late at night, to help our bodies stay awake and active at an hour when they are wired for sleep, the Atlantic notes. The blood-sugar boost may be needed to compensate for our bodies' natural nighttime decrease in the level of the hormone cortisol, which helps signal that it's time to catch some z's.

Or it may be that when we're tired, at the end of the day, our defenses are down and we are more likely to give in to temptation. (Fatigue can decrease the hormone that signals satiation and increases the one that signals hunger.) The magazine cites one 2012 study that found the brain's reward centers actually lit up more in response to pictures of junk food than healthy food when people were deprived of sleep, whereas when they were well-rested, their brains responded to images healthy and unhealthy foods essentially the same way.

Whatever the reason, research indicates that, when you break out the cake and chips at midnight, you may be doing something your body is hardwired to do. Will that help you when you step on the scale the next morning? Perhaps not, but it may help you put down the chip bag and reach for your pillow instead.

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