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Alcohol and Food Cravings

Why Happy Hour makes you hungry

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Why does alcohol make you hungry? This question is often discussed in health blogs about alcohol, and we hear it from our customers all the time. If you ask those who enjoy adult beverages, they’ll likely tell you they’ve experienced cravings (especially for “junk food”) after a few cocktails. Whether it's beer and burgers or wine and cheese, the more we drink, the more we eat – or at least want to eat.

Celebrating with friends over bubbly, grabbing a beer with the boss, or a glass of wine to unwind – many of life’s moments involve alcohol. As enjoyable as a good buzz can be, drinking alcohol, even in moderation, can come with drawbacks like cravings. How do we indulge in the moments that involve a drink in hand and curb these unwanted cravings? First, we have to understand the connection between alcohol and food cravings.

So, is there a scientific explanation behind booze and food cravings, or is it simply another alcohol-related tall tale? Let’s break down the science behind alcohol-driven food cravings to help you develop a plan of action for curbing the “drunchies” after happy hour.

The Science Behind Alcohol and Food Cravings

There are several physiological reasons why you might crave certain things like "junk food" during, after, or even in the morning after consuming alcohol.

At first glance, though, it may seem strange that alcohol causes hunger, especially as alcohol is high in calories. Essentially, alcohol is ethanol, which is a calorie-dense organic compound. Ethanol is about 7 calories per gram, compared to 4 calories per gram with carbs and protein and 9 calories per gram for fat. This makes ethanol nearly as dense in calories as fat.

This should imply that ethanol contributes to satiation (or the feeling of “fullness”), but it does just the opposite and even boosts the appetite (citation). Several factors may contribute to this, including that alcohol:

  • Suppresses the oxidation of fatty acids, which contributes to feelings of hunger as fatty acids play a role in appetite regulation (citation).
  • Increases thermogenesis (calorie utilization causing heat production) in the short term which means you may feel hungry again faster than usual (citation).
  • Stimulates or inhibits neurochemical systems that play a role in appetite regulation. While the exact process is still unclear, researchers have noted that alcohol affects two primary hunger-regulating hormones: Leptin and GLP-1 (citationcitation). These hormones suppress appetite and seem to be either directly or indirectly inhibited when alcohol enters the body. As a result, you start feeling hungry after a few drinks, even if you are actually “full.”

Another link between alcohol and hunger is that alcohol stimulates the same neurons in the brain that are triggered when the body goes into starvation mode. This stimulation could even lead to ethanol-induced overeating (citation).

Pair all these findings with the well-established fact that alcohol causes a reduction in self-control, and it’s clear that indulging in food cravings, and even over-eating, after drinking is commonplace (citation).

What Happens Inside Your Brain?

Though feeling hungry is a biophysical process that involves certain hormones and compounds, appetite also originates in the brain. Behavioral changes from drinking alcohol can lower inhibitions and decrease defenses, especially when it comes to making good food choices and portion control.

This relationship may be explained by two linked behaviors sharing the same circuits in the brain (citation, citation). Researchers from the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine conducted a study that focused on the eating and drinking patterns of male mice. Their findings uncovered a relationship between excessive alcohol consumption and binge eating, revealing that food cravings and alcohol are behaviorally linked.

Alcohol may also stimulate nerve cells in the brain’s hypothalamus that increase appetite. These neurons are activated by starvation, cause an extreme hunger sensation, and can be stimulated by consuming alcohol leading to those sometimes uncontrollable cravings. Likewise, alcohol affects the endocrine system and hormone response, both of which can be traced to brain functions (citation).

Don’t Get Sucked Into the Myths!

You’ve probably heard the old wives’ tale about alcohol and fatty foods: if you eat greasy foods after drinking, it will soak up the alcohol so that you wake up feeling like a million bucks! Unfortunately, the idea that fatty food absorbs alcohol is a myth.

Indulging in those feel-good greasy foods isn’t going to sober you up or make you feel better. The harsh reality is it can actually make you feel worse the morning after, as your body is working twice as hard to break down alcohol and high amounts of sodium and fat. But people often use this myth to justify indulging in those alcohol-driven food cravings.

However, eating more nutritious foods even up to five hours after consuming alcohol (long after the alcohol has already been absorbed) can actually boost how the body breaks down alcohol (citation). So in some cases, eating after drinking can indeed help you metabolize the alcohol more quickly. While food does not "absorb" or "sop up" alcohol, it does seem to increase the speed at which your body breaks it down.

While eating is always a good idea before drinking — and helpful after drinking to accelerate your body's metabolism of alcohol — eating greasy, high-fat, and high sodium foods may do more harm than good. If you’re going to eat after drinking alcohol, it's better to stick to healthier, less calorie-dense foods (since alcohol itself is already very calorie-dense).

How to Enjoy Life’s Moments, Curb the Cravings, and Wake Up Feeling Fresh

How do you curb those unhealthy cravings and wake up feeling fresh after a few drinks with friends? Preparing before cocktail hour with a sober state of mind is key, as opposed to relying on your tipsy self to do the right thing later when your judgment is chemically impaired. Here are our go-to’s for great nights and better mornings:

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  1. Pace yourself and drink responsibly. Keeping your blood alcohol lower with slower drinking will reduce your impairment and the biochemical disruptions of alcohol that can result in you over-eating. In addition, Alcohol affects sleep, so be sure to stop drinking well before you’re ready to go to bed.

  2. Drink water. Mixing in rounds of water in between drinks is a good idea not only because it supports your liver and kidneys, which are working overtime to detoxify the alcohol you're drinking, but also because it will help you pace yourself and feel more full. Cycle in rounds of water between rounds of alcohol to support your body, reduce impairment and reduce the risk of bad eating decisions..

  3. Eat a nutritious meal. Drinking on a full stomach is generally a responsible drinking behavior, and having food in your stomach will help you absorb the alcohol you drink more slowly, making you less likely to make bad eating decisions later. Ideally, that meal contains vegetables/fruit, protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber, and healthy fats. Fuel up with the good stuff before you start drinking!

  4. Prepare a healthy snack ahead of time. Look, drunk-you is going to make bad eating decisions if left to their own devices. But if you plan ahead to make it easy for drunk-you to make better decisions then you're more likely to succeed in not eating junk food. Before you start drinking, make a healthier but appealing snack (e.g. hummus and carrots; fat-free refried beans, olives, and salsa with 100% whole wheat crackers for dipping; popcorn; peanut butter and celery; etc.) and have it waiting for you when you get home. Or if you're going out to a bar, look ahead of time for restaurants nearby with healthy options and set an alarm in your phone to remind you (e.g. alarm for midnight that says: "I know you're hungry! Go get some vegetable spring rolls from the Vietnamese place that's open till 2 and is only a block away on 4th street!").

  5. Be realistic. It’s important to recognize that alcohol will biochemically predispose you to make bad eating choices. Deciding to drink may increase your chances of succumbing to food cravings, regardless of your intent or willpower. Accepting this ahead of time should factor into your decision to drink in the first place, especially if you have specific fitness or nutrition goals. Use this as an additional motivation to drink responsibly and in moderation.

Lastly, make ZBiotics your first drink of the night. While ZBiotics won’t help you curb alcohol-driven food cravings, it will help you to wake up feeling fresh enough to get back on track tomorrow!

Learn more about the world’s first pre-drinking probiotic here.