I’ve written previously how eating outside of your natural circadian rhythm window causes increased fat storage and increases the risks of developing diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Study after study shows that eating late at night is associated with obesity, but all of these studies also point out an interesting factor that I don’t see analyzed enough: why do the majority of these late night meals seem to be calorically-dense junk food? A new mouse study looks at how junk food itself actually causes you to prefer late-night eating. It also shows why those meals tend to be composed of more low-quality, calorie packed junk food.
Sugar and fat is addicting
The study was interesting because the researchers placed either a high-fat meal or a chopped up commercially-available chocolate bar alongside the mice’s normal chow (the balanced diet). What they found was that the mice quickly displayed addiction-like behaviors. They would continuously binge eat when the junk food was present to the point where they would consume a day’s worth of calories during in an hour long window. They would also ignore the chow the rest of the day and simply wait for the junk food to reappear, even though it didn’t appear to satiate hunger.
They also noticed that their eating habits quickly changed. Mice are normally nocturnal and eat at night but they started eating more during the day. They also began snacking more frequently throughout the day instead of having larger meals that were more spaced out. As I mentioned in a previous article, saturated fat and simple sugars “jet lag” your circadian rhythms and push back your sleep and eating patterns to harmful times. It puts you on a vicious cycle of weight gain where poor food choices impact your sleep and then a poor night’s sleep makes you crave more junk food the next day.
Understanding the addictions helps break them
I think everyone inherently understands the addictive nature of junk food yet we’re too quick to deem anyone struggling to break that addiction as weak. I’ve said before that breaking a junk food addiction can be just as challenging as breaking a heroin addiction. I know our nation is suffering through a terrible opiate crisis so I’m not trying to belittle their struggles, but I think we’re all more understanding of their pain and difficulties than those trying to end their food addictions and drastically improve their health and the quality of their lives.
Yes, the pull of junk food is not nearly as strong as an opiate, but you don’t need a continuous supply of heroin each day to survive. You don’t watch heroin commercials on TV every break or drive by dozens of heroin billboards and convenient ‘fast heroin” stores on every corner. You don’t have to resist heroin as all your friends and family sit around and enjoy it in front of you three (and often many more) times per day.
However, there is an upside. The fact that the pull is weaker makes it easier to break, and adding heathy foods to the mix naturally reduces the attraction. A recent New York Times article examined how diet quality alone improved weight loss without calorie counting. There was a great quote in the article that summarized how quality helps reset the addictive quality of junk food and make weight loss a much easier task:
“A couple weeks into the study people were asking when we were going to tell them how many calories to cut back on. And months into the study they said, ‘Thank you! We’ve had to do that so many times in the past.’”
You still need to cut calories to lose weight, but the thing about changing the quality of your diet is that it naturally makes you chose to eat less. Junk food makes you want to stay up late and binge while whole foods filled with healthy fats, protein, and fiber correct your body’s chemistry so you return to your proper level of caloric intake. It’s not about deprivation and suffering, it’s about eating the stuff your body knows how to process correctly so it doesn’t spin out of control.
Simple diet changes
Here are some quick tips to improve diet quality which will in turn improve your sleep quality, break your junk food addictions, and set up your body chemistry for easier fat loss:
Stop eating 3 to 4 hours before bedtime.
Focus on whole foods. Everything on the outside rim of the grocery store. If it’s in a box, limit it or cut it out completely.
Half your plate should come from vegetables.
Aim for healthy fats from sources like fish, olive oil, nuts, and avocados as much as possible, but especially at night (see below).
You process sugar and saturated fat better in the morning than night. At dinner time, limit all sugars and replace the fats in beef, pork, and chicken with healthy fats from plants and healthy animal fats like those in fish and grass-fed beef.
Don’t do all or nothing thinking. Drug addicts have to abstain completely because one little slip means it’s back “on.” Junk food is addictive and also triggers your opioid receptors, but not nearly as powerfully. If you have one treat, don’t think “it’s on” and binge. Just take a second, realize you can just have the one and be done. You don’t need to go nuts, binge, and then hate yourself later.
For a more detailed information on improving your meal quality, check out my 7 keys to a successful diet here.