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Alcohol and Health

Does Alcohol Make You Hungry?

Published:
June 17, 2024
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18 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 17, 2024
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18 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 17, 2024
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18 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 17, 2024
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18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 17, 2024
·
18 min read

When Binge Drinking Leads to Binge Eating

  • Alcohol activates the brain’s hunger center, alters the production of satiation hormones, and lowers our inhibitions, increasing the likelihood of late-night fast food cravings.
  • We can learn how to curb hunger when drinking alcohol by planning ahead, hydrating, packing healthy alternatives, and drinking responsibly.
  • Reframe’s neuroscience-backed best practices and community support offer guidance for those looking to quit or cut back on their alcohol intake.

Another successful party in the books! You say goodbye to the last guest and gently close the door. Your roommate has started tidying — it seems like every surface is hidden under a pile of half-crushed cans, sticky cups, and empty bowls. (How did your friends eat that many chips?!)

You had a huge dinner not too long ago, but your stomach rumbles. Your roommate’s does, too.

Dude, I’m starving.”

You’re not the only one. All over the world, revelers are leaning toward drive-through speakers, tapping orders into delivery apps, and sending their most sober representative into the pizza place. What is it about a fun night that makes us crave slightly smushed burgers, Dorito-dusted tacos, and floppy New York slices?

This time, we can actually blame it on the alcohol. Yep, drinking really does make you crave some salty, greasy goodness — myth confirmed. Let’s get into it.

Why Does Drinking Alcohol Increase Your Appetite?

A tray of food with beer and chips

Everybody talks about hidden calories with alcohol — shouldn’t those be filling? If drinking ups your caloric intake, why does alcohol make you hungry? The answers to these questions have everything to do with the way our body processes alcohol. Let’s take a look at the structures and systems affected by drinking.

  • Hypothalamus. First, alcohol stimulates the hypothalamus — the part of the brain known for maintaining homeostasis. Tucked above the pituitary gland, the hypothalamus is the body’s hunger control center. When we drink, this part of the brain is stimulated, signaling us to consume more food. In some cases, that message is extreme. We might think that we’re starving!

    This phenomenon was confirmed by a group of scientists studying “the apéritif effect.” These researchers found that exposing the body to alcohol before a meal increased food consumption and hypothalamic activation (which they measured through blood oxygenation level dependent fMRIs). They also discovered that even when administered intravenously, alcohol changed the participants’ levels of ghrelin.
  • Ghrelin and leptin. If we think back to high school biology, we may remember ghrelin as “the hunger hormone.” When it’s time to eat, our stomach secretes ghrelin as a heads-up to the brain. Leptin, in contrast, tells us that we’re full.

    Researchers are still gathering information about the relationship between ghrelin, leptin, and alcohol intake. Studies indicate that drinking increases the amount of “hunger hormone” in our systems while simultaneously decreasing the concentration of craving-curbing leptin. Preliminary findings also suggest that supplemental ghrelin may help control alcohol dependence, confirming the relationship between alcohol and these hormones.
  • Blood sugar. As our liver tries to process alcohol, its other responsibilities fall by the wayside. As a result, our blood sugar levels can become unbalanced — especially if we have underlying conditions like diabetes. We may feel dizzy, shaky, and extremely hungry when this happens. To alleviate that uncomfortable sensation, we may grab whatever high-sugar, carb-laden foods are within arm’s reach.
  • Inhibition. When asking, “Why does drinking make you hungry?”, we have to acknowledge alcohol’s judgment-altering effects. Those of us committed to diets during the week may be surprised by how much our resolve fades on Saturday night. In the short term, alcohol suppresses the activity of the cerebral cortex — that famous “gray matter” contributing to complex mental tasks. If we continue to drink heavily, we may even sustain lasting damage in the frontal lobe (another key structure for decision making). All told, alcohol greatly reduces our inhibition and predisposes us to ill-advised snacking.

So, together, the blend of hypothalamic activation, hormonal havoc, and lowered inhibitions lands us in the drive-through at 3 a.m. We’ve even come up with a cute name for the cravings that accompany heavy drinking: the drunchies — a mashup of “drunk” and “munchies.” Fun, right? Well, not necessarily.

The Downside of the Drunchies 

If alcohol made us crave tangerines or tuna, the drunchies might not be such a big deal. Unfortunately, for many of us, drinking awakens our drive to find fatty, sugary foods. Instead of loading up on lean protein and fresh veggies, our intoxicated selves opt for high-calorie, deep-fried, and sugar-coated snacks.

Those goodies light up the reward center of our brain, especially when we consume both fats and carbs. A feel-good rush of dopamine can reinforce unhealthy dietary decisions, increasing the likelihood that we’ll make the same choices the next time we’re inebriated.

Even after the alcohol leaves our system, its dietary effects linger. Think about stereotypical hangover foods. Do we really benefit from fast food the day after drinking? While it’s true that greasy pregame meals can slow alcohol absorption, they don’t do us much good the next morning — even if we’re craving them. A night of heavy alcohol intake irritates our digestive system, and adding fried food can upset it further. Opt for a simple, nutritious breakfast like eggs, whole-grain toast, and a side of fruit instead.

While a few instances of the drunchies won’t do much damage, we should be mindful of what we eat while under the influence. In the long term, those late-night meals can add up, leading to unwanted weight gain. 

Ways Alcohol Can Lead to Weight Gain

Alcohol and Weight Gain

If we drink often and binge eat when we do, that pattern can cause us to gain weight. As always, the chance of this depends on our own genetic makeup, gender, age, and physical activity. There are four main ways that alcohol can lead to weight gain:

  1. Hormonal changes. We’ve already explained the relationship between alcohol, leptin, and ghrelin. When we drink, the body struggles to identify feelings of fullness. It also may believe it’s starving. That’s a strong message that we may not be able to ignore even in the best of times — much less after a night of heavy alcohol intake.
  2. Sleep problems. Drinking affects our ability to get a good night’s sleep. When we don’t rest, our body’s ghrelin and leptin levels become dysregulated, along with our energy levels for exercise the following day. In addition, sleepless nights may change our metabolism. Together, these changes may predispose us to gain weight.
  3. Metabolic dysfunction. When we drink alcohol, our body prioritizes it above any other potential energy sources. It’s a lot like the sitcom stereotype of a record scratch after someone walks into a party. This happens because alcohol is a toxin and a source of readily available calories. Before the body can even consider breaking down other energy sources, it must fully process all available alcohol. This can slow or shut down other metabolic processes for hours or days.
  4. Empty calories. Empty calories are those that offer no nutritional benefit. The body does not convert alcohol to glycogen, a storable carbohydrate; instead, it treats these calories like fat and processes them into fatty acids. This means that we cannot use the carbs and sugars in alcohol to promote physical activity. Instead, we’ll actively fight against them if we hope to lose weight.

If we’re working to lose weight, we may want to consider cutting alcohol out (or maybe just cutting back on it). We may see benefits like improved sleep and reduced bloating within a week of making that change.

How To Curb Hunger When Drinking Alcohol

Fortunately, we can control how we handle hunger spikes after drinking. Proper preparation, hydration, and mindfulness are our biggest assets when changing our eating and drinking habits. Looking to learn how to curb hunger when drinking alcohol? Before your next night out, take these eight tips into account:

  1. Eat before you drink. Have a balanced, healthy meal before you consume any alcohol. This serves two purposes: it reduces the risk of a late-night binge and slows your body’s alcohol absorption.
  2. Slow down. When we consume a large amount of alcohol at once, our body struggles to handle it. We have to give our liver time to work through all those toxins. As a rule of thumb, it takes a full hour to process one standard drink. If we don’t want to find ourselves elbow-deep in a bag of chips, we should sip slowly and avoid binge drinking.
  3. Stay hydrated. Sometimes our body thinks it’s hungry when, really, we’re just thirsty. Add in alcohol’s dehydrating effects, and we’ve got the perfect recipe for a midnight fast-food run. Combat alcohol’s hunger-spiking messages by alternating between alcoholic drinks and full glasses of water.
  4. Give yourself healthy alternatives. A little planning goes a long way. We may want to stock our kitchen with nutrient-rich snacks like cashews, hummus, fruit, and cheese before cracking open a beer. If we’re heading out on the town, we can pop a granola bar into a purse or pocket. The more accessible these smart snacks are, the more likely we’ll be to fill up on the good stuff.
  5. Toss out those tempting treats. In the same vein, we might consider nixing chips, frozen pizza, and candy from our shopping lists. If we can’t access them easily, we’re more likely to get through the night without turning to high-calorie, heavily processed foods.
  6. Make a plan. Yes, we can “plan the binge.” It may sound crazy, but mapping out a night of indulgence is a great way to stay in control. We’ve talked about setting boundaries with others, but sometimes, we need to create them for ourselves. Before ordering a cocktail, we can decide how much we’ll drink and what we’ll eat. If we need help holding ourselves accountable, we might share that information with a friend.
  7. Keep a record. This is a tactic recommended for folks with binge eating disorder, but it’s also a worthwhile exercise for those of us who struggle with alcohol-induced hunger cues. We can journal about our feelings and behaviors, and then review that information later to pick up on patterns. This can help us gather in-depth data about how drinking impacts our appetite.
  8. Drink responsibly. The best way to avoid alcohol-induced hunger is to cut back on our drinking. Binge drinking puts us at risk of myriad out-of-control behaviors; the more we drink, the less inhibited we become. To stay in control, we might want to take a hard look at our relationship with alcohol.

Ditch the Drunchies for Good

Does alcohol increase appetite? You bet. Alcohol makes us hungry by hijacking our hormones, lowering our inhibitions, and causing cravings. A pattern of heavy drinking and late-night noshing can lead to weight gain, especially if we’re struggling with sleep problems and metabolic issues. Fortunately, planning ahead, packing nutritious snacks, and drinking responsibly can provide relief from the drunchies.

If alcohol use is negatively affecting your life, it can be difficult to make a change — even if you really want to. We can help. Reframe offers scientifically sound tips for those looking to cut back on drinking. Our daily readings have been vetted by neuroscientists, life coaches, and other industry professionals. When you download the app, you’ll gain access to a vast virtual support network of fellow Reframers (via daily Zoom check-ins and our 24/7 Forum chat).

To learn more, visit the App Store or Google Play.

Summary FAQs

1. Does alcohol increase appetite?

Yes. Alcohol can make us feel hungry, even if we’ve eaten recently.

2. What’s the best thing to eat while drunk?

Consider healthier take-out choices (veggie-packed burrito bowls, baked chicken wings) or easy DIY meals (PB&J, charcuterie). If you’re more of a snacker, stock your shelves with options like zucchini brownies, trail mix, veggie chips, and popcorn.

3. Why does alcohol make you hungry?

Alcohol increases our appetite by changing the production of hormones like ghrelin and leptin. It also activates the hypothalamus, the brain’s hunger center. Additionally, it reduces our inhibition, increasing the likelihood of impulsive overeating.

4. Does alcohol increase or decrease hunger?

Alcohol increases hunger by acting on our brain and altering our hormone levels.

5. How can I reduce my appetite while drinking?

Before drinking, eat a nutrient-dense meal that’s high in protein, and plan what you’ll eat and drink that night. Drink a glass of water between each alcoholic beverage. Keep healthy snacks close at hand and ditch any chips, candy, and other treats you don’t want to consume. Finally, drink responsibly!

Find the Accountability You Need

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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