Do you ever find yourself just wandering around your house, scavenging for a bag of kettle chips or a chocolate bar–even though you just ate lunch 30 minutes ago?
I personally find myself doing this more often than I care to admit, and this isn’t the only circumstance under which I become suddenly, inexplicably famished. The other week, I was neck deep in a late-night Netflix black hole, and even though it was 11 p.m. and I’d already eaten a satisfying dinner, all I wanted to do was munch.
All of this unwelcome hunger inspired me to do a bit of digging. Scientifically, what is the root of this haphazard hanger? To find out, I spoke with a group of trusted nutrition experts, who laid out all the reasons people often feel hungry when they shouldn’t.
If you’re looking to curb the cookies, here are five reasons why you feel like you can’t stop snacking:
You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep
“This is a very common culprit for unexplained cravings,” says certified holistic nutritionist Vanessa Packer, founder of ModelFIT and co-founder of BonBeri. If your sleep patterns are irregular, it can mess up your eating patterns and digestion. (Ever notice how stopped up you feel when you’re sleep-deprived?)
Not getting enough sleep also elevates cortisol levels, which stimulates hunger.1 “We tend to crave sweets and simple carbohydrates to compensate for our feeling of fatigue,” says O’Connor.
So how much shut-eye should we be getting exactly? According to Tricia Griffin, a registered dietitian at Muscle Milk, seven hours a night is the minimum. By making an effort to go to bed just 30 minutes earlier each night (and then slowly increasing that week by week), you may experience a drop in your cortisol levels, curb your appetite, and help normalize your eating schedule.
You’re Watching Late-Night T.V.
And you thought there were no downsides to binging an entire Netflix series in one night…
“Night-time munching happens for a few reasons,” author Andrea M. Spaeth, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Women’s Health Magazine. “For starters, the longer you stay awake, the more time you have to eat. But losing sleep also appears to increase the desire for high-fat and high-calorie foods. Although it’s unclear why you get these cravings, calorie-dense foods are almost always available these days—so it’s easy for people to overindulge,” says Spaeth. “It’s also possible that willpower diminishes in the wee hours of the night, making it difficult to say no to pleasurable, fatty food.”
If you’re watching late at night (aka prime Netflix hour), the snack cravings are going to increase. “Missing out on sleep is setting you up for sugar and carb cravings the entire next day,” explains Diane Sanfilippo, certified nutrition consultant and author of Practical Paleo.
To curb these tech-induced food binges, try pausing your show when you feel a hunger pang and stepping away from the screen to eat (instead of setting the bag of pita chips next to you). It might be a smart idea to set a time limit, too. I know, doesn’t sound like much fun.
But, the shows will be there when you’re ready to come back for more.
This seems counterintuitive, but one of the most common reasons we consume excess calories is because we’re mistaking thirst for hunger: “Often we eat because we think we’re hungry when in fact we may be dehydrated,” explains Abbey Sharp, a registered dietitian at Abbey’s Kitchen. Luckily, the fix is simple. “Before you eat, have a glass of water first to see if that satisfies before grabbing a snack,” Sharp says.
O’Connor reminds us to try drinking water consistently throughout the day, as well. Keeping a cute water bottle by your desk can be helpful. Fill one up with water four times a day and maybe you’ll feel less snacky.
You’re Chewing Too Much Gum
You might have noticed that your stomach starts to growl when you pop in a piece of gum (if you didn’t notice, try to pay attention next time… it’s wild). Your body is hardwired to associate chewing with food coming. This can actually stimulate your appetite when you didn’t mean to, sending you on a search for snacks–even after you’ve just eaten.
If you’re an avid gum-chewer and you find yourself hankering for a snack when you shouldn’t be, experts suggest that you satisfy that oral fixation on something else, like a glass of sparkling water with cucumber or lemon. Not only will this give your body more of what it loves—fresh water—it’ll also keep your breath fresh and your mouth occupied until it’s time to eat again.
Water can be oh-so boring, so here are my favorite fruit+water combinations.
You’re Eating a Sugary Breakfast
Just because a food is marked as “low fat” doesn’t mean it’s healthy, especially if it’s processed. “‘Diet foods tend to be super low in fat and protein and high in refined carbs, which aren’t as satiating as fat and protein, so it’s easy to get ravenous and binge soon after eating them,” says Sharp.
Instead, Sharp suggests aiming for a combination of protein, high-fiber carbs and choosing fat for your meals and snacks. Avocado toast with hummus on whole grain bread is a great option.