Got the Drunchies? How Heavy Drinking Influences Eating Behaviors

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That insane craving you have for pizza, tacos, and cheeseburgers that comes after a night of drinking alcohol has a name – the “drunchies,” or drunk munchies – and it brings with it a not-so-surprising bonus: weight gain. Over time, that weight gain can lead to obesity and diabetes – two contributors to cancer risk. Findings from a new study suggest that drinking alcohol influences college students’ eating behaviors – and not in a good way.

On an average day, 1.2 million college students consume an alcoholic beverage. In any given month, nearly a third of all college students engage in at least one episode of binge drinking – consuming more than four (for women) or five (for men) alcoholic drinks in less than a two-hour period.

Those drinks add up. Alcohol provides “empty calories” – calories that provide little or no nutritional value but can pack on the pounds. A typical beer provides about 150 calories, while some cocktails, with their multiple shots of liquor or sugary ingredients, can provide nearly three times that. College students often gain weight, much of which can be attributed to drinking alcohol and the eating that often accompanies it.

To find out how alcohol influences college students’ eating behaviors, researchers at the University of Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions collected data from an anonymous online survey of more than 350 students at a large university in the Midwest. The researchers focused on students’ answers about their eating behaviors after a night of drinking, compared to when they hadn’t been drinking. In particular, they wanted to know if the students ate before going to bed and what they ate the next morning.

They found that after students drank heavily they tended to eat before going to bed, says Jessica S. Kruger, PhD, CHES, a clinical assistant professor at University of Buffalo, SUNY, and lead author on the study. Most students ate protein-containing foods and mixed dishes, which often contain a lot of fat, oil, or added sugars – classic drunchie fare. They also drank very little water or other non-alcoholic beverages.

On the day after drinking, the students were more likely to eat salty snack foods and pizza. Although they tended to avoid sweets, the students also avoided healthy foods such as dairy products, beans, and vegetables.


What’s driving the students’ eating behaviors? Alcohol plays havoc with a person’s blood sugar, causing it to spike and then rapidly fall. These fluctuations can increase a person’s appetite, which can lead to unhealthy food choices.

Another factor contributing to the students’ behavior is related to the abundance of urban myths surrounding alcohol and “hangover cures” that stress eating fatty, meaty, calorie-dense foods. Most of these so-called cures are based on the false premise that the food will “soak up” the alcohol. These claims are wildly untrue, says Kruger.

But eating is also simply part of the party scene, and spinach smoothies and veggie frittatas often donot make the cut. “Students are looking for whatever is fast, convenient, and cheap,” says Kruger. At 2 a.m., that often translates to pizza, tacos, and burgers. When you consider the calories in these high fat foods plus those in alcohol, it’s no wonder that college students gain weight.

Although the health effects of weight gain are important to consider, alcohol also increases your risk for certain types of cancer. To lower cancer risk, limit your alcohol consumption to just one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. And keep in mind that a standard drink contains half an ounce of alcohol – about the amount present in a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5-ounce shot of distilled spirits.

Before heading to the party, eat a meal that includes lean protein, healthy fats, and fiber-rich vegetables, fruits, and whole grains to help curb those drunchies later. Following AICR’s New American Plate guidelines can help you make healthy choices – and reduce your cancer risk, too. Be sure to drink plenty of water, too, to stave off the dehydration that often accompanies drinking alcohol. Even mild dehydration can be confused with hunger, leading to unhealthy food choices.

CU @ PRT TPM!
(See you at the party tomorrow night!)

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    Author: Teresa

    Teresa L. Johnson, MSPH, RDN, is a nutrition and health communications consultant with a long-time interest in the role of plant-based diets and cancer prevention. Her work draws on elements of nutritional biochemistry, phytochemistry, toxicology, and epidemiology.

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