The Real Reason You Get Hungry In The Afternoon

Photographed by Ruby Yeh.
It's hard to let go of old habits. In the past year, I've had to retrain myself out of a lot of unhealthy behavior around food: constant calorie calculation, unconscious overeating, and treating bagels like a toxic but seductive ex-boyfriend instead of a breakfast food.  

Those were the first things I had to un-learn when I started working with my intuitive eating coach, Theresa Kinsella, MS, RD, CDN. But, one of the toughest food hurdles I've had to leap was the afternoon snack. All my life, I'd been trying to avoid it, trying to manage it, or just trying to trick my body into not wanting it. But, every day, 3 p.m. would come around, and I'd find myself fantasizing about crackers. Sometimes, I craved pretzels — other times, nuts. And, I almost always had a hankering for something sweet with my salty. But, snacking was bad. Crackers were really bad. If I snacked on crackers, then I, too, would be Officially Bad that day. 

I hope this comes as no surprise, but it turns out: My snacking philosophy was just as bonkers as it sounds. Instead of learning how to finally quit snacking, I learned how to do it. It wasn't as simple as I thought. (Sometimes, a cracker isn't just a cracker.) But, it was a lot less complicated than I'd made it out to be. 
Photographed by Ruby Yeh.
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Afternoon hunger is real. 
Most of us experience the afternoon slump. Research indicates it's a natural part of our circadian rhythm and is easily exacerbated by not getting enough sleep. Does that sound familiar to, oh, everyone? As Kinsella further explains, this is why "many people have legitimate hunger in the afternoon. They need fuel to meet their energy needs." In this case, skipping the snack is akin to skipping a meal, meaning you're far more likely to overeat at the next one.

Furthermore, everyone's calorie needs are different. Age and activity level have an impact on how much you need to eat. If you're pregnant, highly active, or just young, says Kinsella, "you're likely going to need more than three meals a day."

For example: When I first started working out regularly, my snacking desire went way up. I rolled with it, honoring that very real hunger. And, despite my fears, I didn't stuff myself silly and gain a bazillion pounds. Soon enough, the cravings eased a bit as my body adjusted to daily exercise. Though I still needed the snack, I didn't NEED THE SNAAAACK

But, feelings are real, too. 
Breaking: Work can be stressful. Like many people, I often spend the morning busy and productive, blowing through that first round of emails and items on my to-do list. But, the afternoon is prime time for the feelings to attack: boredom, anxiety, the inability to answer one more email because ugh, why can't you leave me alone?

Suddenly, crackers and a piece of chocolate sound great. 

It's normal for our brains to reach for that dopamine hit when the afternoon blahs strike — and starchy, sugary foods are a quick-and-dirty way of getting it. But, they're not the only way.

Is it craving or need?
That's the question I try to remember to ask myself before I go scavenging in the office kitchen. Usually, the answer is pretty obvious. If I'm avoiding a task, dealing with family drama, or staring at my phone because my friend hasn't texted back in two hours and maybe she's mad at me — it might be an emotional need. If I get hit with that sudden snack-attack feeling out of the blue, then it's probably a physical craving. Bonus round: Sometimes, it's both! You can be both hungry and emotional at the same time! Cool?

"A craving might be a sign of an unmet need or negative emotion that needs to be addressed," Kinsella tells me (which is nicer than just saying, "duh"). "Do you need permission for something else, like taking a break, saying no, or setting a limit?" she asks.

In unmet-need cases, try and think of what might actually help address the issue, because the crackers sure aren't going to hop of of your hand and do the work for you. But, if you do wind up eating emotionally, just be aware of it; don't beat yourself up about it. When has beating yourself up ever made anything better?

Ignoring a craving only makes it stronger.

A lot of us get very specific cravings in the afternoon: Hershey Kisses, potato chips, a big, green apple and peanut butter. Sometimes, these cravings are biologically based (reaching for the chocolate for that instant energy/mood lift); other times, they're a case of emotional entanglement. 

"People have associations with specific foods," says Kinsella. "If your mom baked you cookies when something went wrong during childhood, you may crave cookies when you need comfort." Sometimes, we crave foods that feel off-limits (I'm looking at you, Ritz). This is especially true for those of us who've spent a lifetime dieting. Think of all the times you've fallen prey to the office candy bowl while on a diet. When we're tired or stressed in the afternoon, we're more likely to give in. 

So, you know what? Give in. If you have a strong, specific craving, make the decision to satisfy it. Do this deliberately, with full consciousness and in public view. Avoiding it or sneaking it only makes the craving stronger. Treat this food like you would treat something totally neutral. That's how you make it neutral.

Snacking is a natural, healthy habit as long as you treat it like one. Only when you start stressing over it does it become a problem. Eating crackers is totally normal behavior. Hiding from crackers is not. 


The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow my journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Anti-Diet moments, too!). Got a question — or your own Anti-Diet story to tell? Email me at kelsey.miller@refinery29.com.
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