By Dana DeMercurio
It’s 2a.m. and you’re standing in the kitchen, bathrobe flung wide open, tearing through a carton of Häagen- Dazs, devouring an industrial-size box of Cheez Its, sliding a plate of leftovers in the microwave or (perhaps even and) slathering mustard and mayo on a submarine roll layered with cold cuts and deli cheese. It’s not that you’re hungry per se, but you’ve got nothing better to do. Chances are you’re a chronic late-night snacker, and now we’ve learned the reason why.
According to new research out of Brigham Young University, the brain is to blame for those late night or early morning cravings. The study reveals that the human brain is less sensitive to the rewards that food gives us in those wee hours, thus leading to potential face-stuffing expeditions and brazen overeating when we should be sleeping.
The study, which was published in the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior, used MRIs to measure how people’s brains react to an array of food images at different times throughout the day. The ironic bit? Researchers used only female participants in their study.
15 women viewed 360 images of food, once in the morning and once a day later in the evening, on two separate occasions. Subjects viewed images of low-calorie foods such as fruits, vegetables and fish along with high-calorie foods including fast food and sugary sweets. Results found that all participants displayed greater neural reaction in their MRIs when looking at high-calorie foods, yet the evening scans showed a much lower response to both categories of food images in areas of the brain that measure rewards.
In an email interview with The Huffington Post, Travis Masterson, lead author and researcher at BYU, stated this about the study’s findings: “You might over-consume at night because food is not as rewarding, at least visually, at that time of day. You eat more to try to get satisfied.” It turns out, midnight snackers are falling into the vicious cycle of overeating in an attempt to get that same food high or reward they get when eating during the day. The effect, Masterson said, is much like that of gamblers, drug addicts or alcoholics all looking for a similar high.
Participants were told to avoid eating or drinking for a number of hours before each MRI session. Despite maintaining the same diet on all days of the study, a large portion of the participants stated that they were more preoccupied with thoughts of food in the later hours of the day and believed that they could eat more (that oh-so-familiar “my eyes are bigger than my stomach” situation).
“Being aware that you are being more influenced visually in the morning and perhaps are being less satisfied by food at night may help you to make small but meaningful changes in your eating habits,” Masterson stated.
In the future, if you find yourself awake at midnight and lying in bed drooling at the thought of a gluttonous journey to the kitchen resulting in what can only be characterized as a shameful display of raging female hormones, just repeat this mantra: “Not today, Temptation. Not today.”