Ever find yourself staring into the fluorescent void of your fridge long past your bedtime, despite eating a full three meals a day? A recent study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University identified a “hunger hormone” that causes hunger levels to rise in the evening, especially in people prone to stress and binge eating. Published in the International Journal of Obesity, the researchers’ findings suggest that raiding the kitchen for midnight snacks is not simply a gluttonous self-indulgence, but an indicator of a larger problem.
“Our findings suggest that evening is a high-risk time for overeating, especially if you’re stressed and already prone to binge eating,” said study author Susan Carnell, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in a press release. “The good news is that having this knowledge, people could take steps to reduce their risk of overeating by eating earlier in the day, or finding alternative ways to deal with stress,” she continued.
Dr. Carnell and her team based their study off of previous research surrounding ghrelin, a hunger hormone that has been proven to rise in response to stress during daylight hours. Knowing that controlling urges to overeat becomes more difficult for many obese individuals and binge eaters at night, the researchers sought to compare participants’ hunger and stress hormones between day and night.
Thirty two overweight participants between the ages of 18 and 50 participated in the study, fasting for eight hours before consuming a liquid meal in the morning or evening. Shortly after, they underwent a stress test in which their facial expressions were measured by digital camera recordings as their hands were submerged in ice-cold water. Understandably, most of the participants were left stressed and hungry. As it turned out, the evening subjects displayed higher levels of hunger and consumed more food post-testing.
The relationship between stress and hunger is rocky, and as the science points out, it complicates even further after the sun goes down. The battle to reduce unhealthy late-night eating isn’t simply fixed with three nutritious meals per day. Investing your time in stress-relieving activities like exercise or meditation is just as important as planning out healthy meals when it comes to keeping your hunger in check.