Why do so many people fall of the ‘diet wagon’ in the mid-late afternoon?

I came across this on-line piece today, which highlights a poll conducted by people from a campaign called ‘Seasonal Berries’. It purports to show that a major reason individuals fail to stick to a new ‘healthier’ dietary regime is that they succumb to none-too-healthy snacks, particularly in the mid-late afternoon.

I have to say, my experience does bear this out: I have spoken to literally hundreds of people over the years that find the mid-late afternoon can bring with it hunger and specifically cravings for carbohydrate rich foods that can make healthy eating nigh impossible. Some people imagine they are just weak-willed and lack self-control. But if that’s the case, how come they often exhibit these issues at quite specific times during the day, but at other times have no issues at all?

The timing of food cravings points to some sort of physiological imbalance. As the nutritionist quoted in the piece alludes to, this is often said to be related to low levels of glucose in the bloodstream (hypoglycaemia) at this time. Other symptoms that are common at this time and support the idea that hypoglycaemia is the underlying problem include fatigue, sleepiness and loss of mental focus and concentration.

Some people dispute the role of blood sugar as a factor in afternoon fatigue and food cravings. However, here’s two things that make me think that stalling sugar is usually the issue:

  1. eating something sweet or that liberates sugar quickly into the bloodstream usually improves symptoms very quickly.
  2. taking steps to stabilise blood sugar levels often gets rid of or at least significantly reduces the symptoms.

So, I reckon the nutritionist quoted in the piece is probably right regarding her thoughts on blood sugar, but I’m not convinced about the value of berries as a snack. First of all, they are really not that convenient (an apple or pear, for instance, is much more easily stored and eaten).

But my main issue with fruit has to do with why a snack might be eaten in the first place. Hunger is the usual trigger factor, so I’d say an essential component of a truly healthy snack food is not only some nutritional value, but also an ability to sate the appetite properly. My experience with people tells me that fruit falls down badly regarding the latter criterion.

Many people who are peckish or hungry who attempt to use fruit to ‘keep the wolf from the door’ will generally find hungry again (perhaps even hungrier) about half an hour later. In other words, fruit tends to give very limited respite from hunger.

This is why, as far as snacks go, I tend to recommend nuts and seeds: these generally do a much better job of controlling appetite for extended periods of time. Other snacks that tend to work well here include cold meat and hard-boiled eggs.

Another thing worth bearing in mind that low-blood sugar is more likely to be a problem some time after eating something that causes substantial surges in blood sugar. Many people choose sandwiches at lunch, and this appears to be where problems often start. Better lunches that help to ensure more sustained levels of sugar through the afternoon include salads containing a decent quantity of protein (in the form of, say, meat, fish, seafood and egg) or a meaty or fishy soup.

14 Responses to Why do so many people fall of the ‘diet wagon’ in the mid-late afternoon?

  1. Dawn Waldron 7 February 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    Hi John, I think you’re right that low blood sugar is a major factor in the afternoon munchies, but I think there may be another factor: tryptophan depletion leading to low serotonin. I’ve noticed that a lot of people eat protein with their evening meal but not with breakfast or even lunch. I came across a 1996 study that showed that if tryptophan was withheld for 8 hours then mood deteriorated during the day. Low blood sugar can make it more difficult for tryptophan to get across the blood brain barrier so the two are probably linked. Eating some protein with breakfast and lunch should help balance blood sugar and support mood. More detail here: http://dawnwaldron.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/in-the-mood-to-munch/

  2. Rita 7 February 2014 at 1:11 pm #

    I’m an “n of one” here, so what I’m suggesting may not apply to everyone. But I had to overcome the misconception that dieting meant cutting calories. This led to not eating enough and struggling with hunger. Putting substantial protein, some veg, and good fats in my belly at breakfast and again at lunch, rather than trying to subsist on oatmeal and carrot sticks, resulted in an almost total elimination of cravings because I wasn’t hungry. And by cutting back on carbs instead of worrying about calories I lost the weight I wanted to lose.

    And if I want something to tide me over, as you suggest, Dr. Briffa, a handful of walnuts does the trick.

  3. Tamzin Griffin 7 February 2014 at 3:22 pm #

    After years of experimenting with various eating habits I discovered that a good breakfast and lunch, both with an amount of protein (nuts with muesli in the morning) fresh fruit/veg, and not too many carbs is GUARANTEED to ensure a complete absence of mid afternoon sweet cravings..(plus a handful of nuts/seeds in my bag, just in case lunch is delayed).

  4. Nata 7 February 2014 at 4:42 pm #

    Sometimes it is just boredom, possibility of psychological need for “something”.
    Therefore it is wise to take appropriate snack rather than depend on Corporate vending machines littered with chocolates and crisps

  5. Pam 7 February 2014 at 5:47 pm #

    Tiredness and stress also play a role. My body clock is at its low point at 3-5 o’clock in the afternoon — just about the time I left work, ran errands, got the kids off the schoolbus and started laundry/homework/dinner (when my kids were young). Even though I low-carb and get enough protein and fat during the morning, it’s hard to resist the emotional lift of a treat at that time of day.

  6. Wayne Bowman 7 February 2014 at 8:18 pm #

    I find a Greek yogurt with nuts and a piece of fruit works well for me until tea time to keep me going.

    I general I also I find fruit on its own doesnt do much to keep hunger at bay, infact it can make me more hungrier. I have recentley started to up my mid morning snack from an apple to an apple, 2 tablespoons peanut butter and a handful of whole nuts. I find this keeps me going for around 2 hours.

  7. Paleofast 7 February 2014 at 8:45 pm #

    It is a well known phenomenon to diabetes experts that fasting blood glucose is at its lowest in the mid to low afternoon (reaches nocturnal levels) just like there is a so called dawn effect in the morning with BG being at its highest due to cortisol burst at waking. A ketogenic diet minimises the hunger effect as bg becomes irrelevant

    • Gabriella in Santa Barbara, CA 8 February 2014 at 12:19 am #

      Hello’, Paleofast -
      Your information about the blood sugar is quite interesting. Is the highest blood sugar level due to the dawn effect of the burst of cortisol at waking linked to high fasting insulin level?
      And if so, is there a way to lower the fasting insulin or is it something completely natural to the biology of the human body?
      Many thanks. Gabriella

    • Peggy Holloway 9 February 2014 at 3:59 am #

      Good advice! I was going to post that the answer is to eat high-fat. I often just have a bullet-proof coffee first thing in the morning and take a mug of butter, coconut oil, and a touch of cream blended with hot water to work. It is not unusual for me to get home in the evening and forget that I actually haven’t “eaten” all day. Not hungry and bursting with energy.
      I am a 61 year-old female who free-lances and teaches young people and I’m amazed to find that I have more energy and stamina than my students.

  8. fredt 8 February 2014 at 1:04 am #

    Or is it subconscious / unconsciously trained in phenomena as a result of eating after school? The issue with subconscious / unconsciously trained in is that these cannot be trained over or out easily. Even after years, give in once, and it is back, as much as it ever was. But what do I know.

  9. Chris 9 February 2014 at 11:25 pm #

    To some it’s clear that a moderate to high carb meal will result in high blood sugar for the period of up to a few hours. Then, when the blood sugar goes down, hunger kicks in. “Fueling up” with carbohydrate sources (such as apples and other fruits) have no effect on hunger and they also only give a moderate spike in the blood sugar (compared to very rich carb foods). That’s why the hunger comes back in a short amount of time. Sometimes (most of the times) after eating an apple hunger never goes away.

  10. Jonathan Bagley 12 February 2014 at 3:47 pm #

    Yes, around 3.30 to 4 I’m tempted by biscuits and chocolates permanently available in the admin office. Very difficult not to grab a couple. I’ve found a hard boiled egg does the job. Problem is remembering to boil the eggs the night before.

  11. Joe 26 February 2014 at 4:50 pm #

    I’ve been seeing a different pattern in my afternoon/early evening food intake “spike.” If i am really tuned into my feelings, one thing is clear – as the day is more than half over and I feel like i’m cruising into the landing zone for the day, i have a common tendency to use food as a reward. I don’t see this as addictive or otherwise – I like to eat! The tastier the better. Anyone who eats purely for sustenance is missing one of life’s simple pleasures. But, that is not the point…….. I just find that its as simple as a lowering of the self discipline based on a desire to celebrate the ending of the day.
    In addition, I find that sedentary activities make me more susceptible, and if i’m not highly engaged in what i’m doing, even worse. On days where i’m on the move, i’m focused and driven to accomplish something by the end of the day, even if i am hungry, i won’t snack.
    My challenge is simple – Avoid afternoons in sedentary activities, have a full calendar that keeps me focused and intense on tasks at hand until dinner time, and limit my food celebrations to once a week, not daily!
    Cheers, Joe

  12. natalie 11 March 2014 at 4:06 am #

    after school on the days I walk home (a 45 minute walk including a 20 minute hill walk!) i usually have some frozen raspberries heated up for 30 seconds with some desiccated coconut and coconut cream. I put a lot more coconut cream and desiccated coconut into the mix to make sure that my macros are still 70-80% fat with only a little bit of carbs. Keeps me full and it’s a delicious treat! Raspberries are the best fruits to have because they have some of the lowest carb/sugar counts of any fruit and it’s easier to portion control than say half a banana or apple.

    Also if you really want to have an almost pure fat snack, some cheese smeared with peanut butter sounds gross but tastes absolutely amazing!

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