How to stop the afternoon munchies

Story highlights

  • A study shows that a lack of sleep stokes your appetite like marijuana
  • Experts offer advice on being prepared for that appetite boost

It's 3 p.m. on a Tuesday and you'd do anything for a donut... with chocolate filling... and those rainbow sprinkles on top. Are you hungry? Bored? You may just have a case of the "sleep munchies." According to a recent study published in the journal SLEEP, a lack of zzz's stokes your appetite just like marijuana might. Seriously! When you don't get enough shut-eye, your brain lights up with the same chemicals that cause stoners to giggle over Funyuns and chomp on Twinkies.

    While sleep deprivation has long been linked to overeating and weight gain, researchers at the University of Chicago were able to link it to endocannabinoids, our bodies' version of THC, marijuana's active component. Like THC, this chemical can make you want to eat "super-palatable foods" that are high in fat, sugar and salt, says lead author Erin C. Hanlon, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Endocrinology at the university's Sleep, Metabolism and Health Center. In fact, getting just 4.5 hours of sleep could mean 33 percent more endocannabinoids than are present after a restful eight-and-a-half hours of sleep. In the study, that resulted in eating double the amount of fat and 46 percent more calories (despite eating a dinner that met 90 percent of their daily caloric requirements only two hours before the snacking session commenced). Yikes!
    And if you have just one sleepless night, it could influence your food choices the next day. In a Mayo Clinic study, people who cut 80 minutes from their regular sleep schedule ended up eating an extra 549 calories the next day. "If we had enrolled participants that usually slept six to six and a half hours a night, we may have seen different effects," Hanlon says.

    Low on sleep? Your 'munchies' action plan

    No, not everyone can hit eight-and-a-half hours of sleep each night just to keep that appetite in check. And not everyone has to, Hanlon says. "The National Sleep Foundation suggests that adults get between seven and nine hours a night," she says. Didn't get your personal Rx for shuteye last night? Here's how to cope if you've feel a case of the sleep munchies coming on.
    1. Assess your plate. Even if you know that you run best on, let's say, seven and a half hours of sleep, does that mean that you're always going to hit the mark? Nope. If you had a less-than-stellar night of sleep, "anticipate your extra appetite boost and head it off by planning on extra large portions of vegetables, staying fully hydrated, and ensuring you get a lean protein source with each meal to aid in satiety," says Georgie Fear, R.D., author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss. You'll want at least 30 percent of your calories for each meal to come from protein, says Fear, and fill up half your plate with veggies. (That means less pasta and more broccoli, folks.)
    2. Stock your desk drawers. Healthy snacks on hand can help beat cravings before the munchies hit. Find yourself jonesing for some sweets? Appease your taste buds with natural sugars from fruit instead of those from high-octane sweets like candy and cookies, she says. (When your body is low on energy, it naturally craves high-sugar foods for a quick hit of energy.)
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    3. Seek out healthy fats. Odds are good that your body's going to crave high fat foods in addition to sugary snacks. In the University of Chicago study, participants rated their cravings for high-carb and high-fat foods like those to be the highest, Hanlon says. Call it your taste buds seeking out energy for your sleep-starved body. FYI, if you're all about fatty foods when you're sleepy, try focusing on whole sources like avocados and even Greek yogurt over deep fried everything, Fear says.
    Bottom line: Your brain might be to blame for your afternoon vending machine runs. But luckily, you don't need to white-knuckle it through the cravings in order to stay healthy — you just need some more zzz's.