Why do we eat fatty foods after drinking alcohol?

Geek Chic: Prof. Brian Cox is the BBC's science poster boy

I don’t think Australia has discovered ‘Geek Chic’ yet.

Here in the UK, television producers have been going out of their way to make science look ‘cool’. No longer are science presenters stuffy old men with big beards; they’re young, hip, good-looking AND clever! Out with the anoraks and in with the trendy quiffs!

But perhaps our friends in Oz just aren’t that superficial. Dr Karl (full name Karl Kruszelnicki) is one of the top science journalists ‘down-under’ and his success is nothing to do with his sense of fashion: He sports a receding crop of grey hair, round ‘Harry Potter’ glasses and a trademark Hawaiian shirt!

Not chic: Dr Karl, the Australian who tries to answer all your scientific questions

But I couldn’t care less about Dr Karl’s eccentricities, because he’s a true science guru and I’m a huge fan of his radio shows and podcasts.

It was in a recent podcast that the Doc got himself stumped on this particular question:

“Why do we desire fatty foods when we’re hungover?”

So Dr Karl, as I know how you have a liking for strong Australian beer, I have written you a full scientific explanation of why you just can’t resist that Kebab on the way home from the pub…

Does alcohol make you hungry?

The health conscious amongst us will know that alcoholic drinks contain a lot of calories. A pint of Fosters beer Victoria Bitter has about 200 calories in it (the same as a small blueberry muffin). So it would seem odd that alcohol would make you hungry. But for those of us who enjoy a couple of glasses of tipple know, the post-drink ‘midnight munchies’ is a very real phenomenon.

Scientists have pondered this very question. At first they didn’t believe it, but carefully conducted experiments showed that people who had even unwittingly ingested alcohol would end up feeling more hungry and eating more sometime in the next three hours. Based on their research (full references below), half a pint (one unit) wasn’t enough to interfere with normal eating control, but after four units the ability to regulate food intake went somewhat AWOL – and the drive to eat far exceeds what is needed.

To drink or not to drink? Drinking more than one unit of alcohol starts to trigger appetite.

Why does that fry-up look so good after drinking?

Greasy, high calorie food might not normally float your boat, but you are more likely to go for it after alcohol

The reason as to why we go crazy for a take-away after an alcohol indulgence is a much more difficult question to answer.

Some people have suggested because alcohol reduces our inhibitions, we are more relaxed about what we eat: That ‘health conscious’ part of our brain calms down and so we eat what we really want!

It now seems that this theory is not the whole story.

Last year, a team of researchers from Sussex, UK came up with the answer: Alcohol directly interferes with appetite control in your brain! It was found that after alcohol, food actually looked more appealing! By carefully controlling the food and alcohol intake in a group of volunteers, they also discovered that there were some psychological factors at play: A person’s past experiences of alcohol and food effect what they eat after a drink. So, a person who tends to eat a curry after a beer is quite likely to do the same even if they were tricked into drinking a non-alcoholic beer!

Appetite is controlled in the hypothalamus. Alcohol seems to trigger this part of the brain into action – making us crave high calorie food!

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Thanks for reading – comments and feedback are warmly welcomed!


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DISCLAIMER: Stay legal, everything in moderation, and please be Drink Aware. Doctor Stu does not encourage excessive or irresponsible drinking!

References:

S. J. Caton, M. Ball, A. Ahern, M. M. Hetherington, Dose-dependent effects of alcohol on appetite and food intake, Physiology & Behavior, Volume 81, Issue 1, March 2004, Pages 51-58

Martin R. Yeomans, Short term effects of alcohol on appetite in humans. Effects of context and restrained eating, Appetite, Volume 55, Issue 3, December 2010, Pages 565-573

Read More:

Find out more about Dr Karl

See what eating the equivalent of a pint of beer looks like.

22 responses to “Why do we eat fatty foods after drinking alcohol?”

  1. Chick pea curry and a naan was always my weakness after a student night out in Swansea. Or the world’s biggest heap of buttered toast! Mmmm….

  2. Two small corrections/clarifications:
    1) Australians wouldn’t be caught dead drinking Fosters.
    2) We will happily eat kebabs and falafels at any time of day, not just after drinking. 🙂

    • Hi Crumpet!
      Thanks for that!
      1) I shall make necessary ammendments to the article – forgive my Pom ignorance (it is good to know you have better taste) what would be a more accurate beverage (Victoria Bitter??)
      2) Good to know!! (we Brits tend to go for them after a night out…)

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  5. Thank you – great article, but unfortunately moderation means different things to different people and I don’t feel it is enough to say that to people any longer and have them make responsible choices.

    • Thanks for the comment. Interestingly, the soon-to-be-released new version of the ‘psychiatrist’s bible’ (DSM V) is likely to acknowledge ‘food addiction’ as a disorder (alongside others such as addiction to gambling, sex, internet…)

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