It is common for us to crave a late-night snack. You are not hungry, but you still feel the need to eat something in the late night hours. New research suggests it is the wiring in your brain that is behind these cravings.

According to new research from Brigham Young University, people tend to over-consume at night because at that time our brains are less sensitive to the rewards that food gives us. For this reason, we tend to be less satisfied by what we eat in the wee hours and therefore driven to keep on eating.

You might over-consume at night because food is not as rewarding, at least visually, at that time of day, according to Travis Masterson, a researcher at BYU and the study’s lead author.  This might lead you to eat more to try to get satisfied.

The study was published in the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior.  Researchers used MRI scans to look at the brains of participants while they viewed 360 images of both healthier foods (like fish and vegetables) and high-calorie foods (like donuts, candy, ice cream and fast food), both during the day and at night.

MRI brain scanThe participants’ brains responded to both sets of images with spikes of activity — and unsurprisingly, there was a greater neural response to the images of high-calorie foods. But the researchers also found that there was less brain activation when the images were viewed at night, suggesting that the brain’s “food reward” response dims during the later hours. That means that you need to eat more at night in order to feel satisfied. The researchers are not yet sure why food isn’t as rewarding at night, but it is possible that the body’s natural circadian rhythms, which dictate our patterns of rest and activity, play a key role.

So what can you do to avoid temptation? Researchers recommend being aware that you are being more influenced visually in the morning and perhaps are being less satisfied by food at night.  This awareness may help you to make small but meaningful changes in your eating habits. So the next time you are tempted by an unnecessary late night snack, remember that your insatiable late-night appetite is really all in your head.

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