Evening Food Cravings Linked to Circadian System

Food for Thought:

Despite best intentions, many people fall prey to unhealthy snack cravings in the late evening. But before you beat yourself up for being seduced by the siren song of your favorite duo—Ben and Jerry—new research suggests that perhaps we are hardwired for such eating patterns.

Research published in the journal Obesity (2013; [21], 421–23) shows that the body’s internal clock, the circadian system, increases hunger and cravings for sweet, starchy and salty foods in the evenings. While the urge to consume more before sleep may have helped our ancestors store energy to survive in times of food scarcity, in the current environment of high-calorie food, late-night snacks may result in significant weight gain.

“Of course, there are many factors that affect weight gain, principally diet and exercise, but the time of eating also has an effect,” said Steven Shea, PhD, director for the Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology at Oregon Health & Science University and senior author on the study. “We found with this study that the internal circadian system also likely plays a role in today’s obesity epidemic because it intensifies hunger at night. People who eat a lot in the evening, especially high-calorie foods and beverages, are more likely to be overweight or obese.”

  • Study authors observed that the internal circadian system regulated hunger, with participants feeling least hungry in the morning (8:00 am) and most hungry in the evening (8:00 pm).
  • Similar rhythms were found in appetite for specific types of food, such as sweet, starchy and salty, and in how much participants estimated they could eat.
  • Researchers concluded that the internal circadian system causes an evening peak in appetite that may promote consumption of larger, higher-calorie meals before the fasting period necessitated by sleep.

“Our study suggests that because of the internal circadian regulation of appetite, we have a natural tendency to skip breakfast in favor of larger meals in the evening. This pattern of food intake across the day is exactly what Sumo wrestlers do to gain weight,” said Shea. “So, it seems likely that the internal circadian system helps with efficient food storage. While this may have been valuable throughout evolution, nowadays it is likely to contribute to the national epidemic of obesity.”

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Sandy Todd Webster

IDEA Author/Presenter
Sandy Todd Webster is Editor in Chief of IDEA's publications, including the award-winning IDEA FITNE... more less
July 2013

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Article Comments

On Jul 25, 2013
So how do we stop eating at night ??? I'm the worst!
Brenda Kashuba
On Jul 25, 2013
This is good information but it doesn't offer any potential solutions for overcoming the problem of increased hunger and cravings in the evening.
Maggie Barclay
On Sep 19, 2013
Breakfast like a King/Queen
Lunch like a Prince/Princess
Dinner like a Pauper

Healthy snacks in the evening. Portion control all day. Lots of water. Easier said than done, but "don't stop starting". Baby steps (or walking steps instead of eating, LOL!)

Set a time to not eat after. If you eat something extra, do some extra movement/exercise of some kind. (Calories in vs Calories out!)


Don't beat yourself up, and keep trying!

Maggie Barclay
On Sep 19, 2013
BTW - I am not a dietician. These are things I've learned "along the way"! :0)

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