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Inside the Mind of a Drunk With the Munchies

Why does booze make us so ravenous?

All I remember is that it was purple.

When you visit Portland, Oregon, there are a handful of culinary experiences everyone insists you must check off: Salt and Straw, the original Pok Pok, the tin-foil artistry encasing your leftovers from Montage, and of course, Voodoo Doughnut. Admittedly, these places lose their original magnetism when you live in Portland — as I did for several years — but the metabolic impossibility that is a Voodoo doughnut will stick with me forever.

Voodoo is famous for deep-fried candy-coated monstrosities like the Pot Hole, a Bavarian cream-filled chocolate doughnut topped with Oreos; the Tex-Ass, a single giant glazed doughnut equal in size to a half-dozen regular doughnuts; and the Butterfingering, a chocolate cake doughnut covered in vanilla frosting and Butterfinger pieces. Just walking past the shop’s bright pink umbrellas constricts your arteries.

So, naturally, they’re open 24/7.

Somehow, though, I managed to avoid ever tasting one. Until, that is, I woke up after a night lost in the Barmuda Triangle, a stretch of about three blocks with possibly the highest concentration of dive bars in the city, with one shoe on, my bike in the living room and a horrible just shoot me now, put me out of my misery hangover. I stumbled to the kitchen for a glass of water and immediately felt 1,000 times worse: There, on the counter, was an open box of Voodoo doughnuts—a hailstorm of crumbled Oreos and Fruit Loops, and dead center, a half-eaten, gooey, purple cake-type thing that, given the arc of its circumference, had originally been abso-fucking-lutely enormous.

Oh my God, a small, shame-ridden voice in my head said, I ate doughnuts last night. Like, a lot of doughnuts.

What the fuck was I thinking?

Eating when you’re drunk is like letting your spirit animal take the reins except, while intoxicated, everyone’s spirit animal is a giant, rabid trash panda with Tom Brady’s metabolism. But why? Why are you so goddamn hungry after a night of heavy drinking? And, more importantly, why are the things you’d never touch while sober (pizza, chili dogs, hamburgers, Taco Bell, a doughnut the size of your head — basically anything with enough fat and carbs to put an elephant in a food coma) what Drunk You reaches for to quench that hunger?

Let’s take a trip inside your head to better understand how all that booze is incapable of filling your stomach by itself and instead has you reaching for a Naked Chicken Chalupa (or if we’re being honest here, three Naked Chicken Chalupas) at 2 in the morning.

Booze Makes You Hungry — Or at Least Feel Hungry

In a study published last year, researchers from the Mill Hill Laboratory in London determined that alcohol activates a particular type of brain cell in the hypothalamus, the section of the brain that controls things like thirst, body temperature, fatigue, sleep, and yes, hunger. And when activated, these cells (officially known as agouti-related protein, or AgRP) led well-fed mice with full bellies to immediately seek out food — even though they were, you know, well-fed and with full bellies. On the flip side, when AgRP cell activity is repressed, mice who haven’t eaten for extended periods of time still won’t eat the food that’s put in front of them. In other words, if you drink enough, your brain is going to tell you you’re hungry no matter how much food is stewing in your stomach.

You’re Always on the Hunt for Energy (aka Food) Anyway

Your body is like a battery: It’s engineered to dole out energy as stingily as possible, making sure there’s enough left in the tank to allow you to outrun the saber-toothed tiger that might pop up at any second (at least that was the original intention). Similarly then, it also wants access to as much energy as possible. (Again, to keep you from getting eaten long enough to spread your seed — or your legs—and keep the planet populated.)

And because of your body’s focus on retaining energy, you’re designed to enjoy energy-dense (aka high calorie) foods. “All mammals gravitate to eating the most energy-dense foods,” David Levitsky, professor of human ecology and nutritional sciences at Cornell University, told Popular Science in 2012. “Fat is the most energy-dense food available.”

In other words, it’s not the impeccable — if cynical — Fourth Meal marketing talking, it’s just that the cards are biologically stacked against you: Your body naturally craves calories, fat contains a lot of calories, booze tells your brain to tell your body it’s hungry and all concept of eating healthy is rubbed out by a night on the bottle.

Bring on the saber-toothed tigers.

Fat Tastes Even Better When You’re Drunk

That’s because beyond AgRP, alcohol tampers with another set of brain cells — those that produce a protein called galanin — that make you crave it. According to research published with the National Institutes of Health, galanin has a “positive, reciprocal relationship with dietary fat and alcohol. In this relationship, galanin increases the [desire to consume] fat or alcohol which, in turn, stimulates the expression of galanin, ultimately leading to overconsumption.”

In scientific terms, you’re essentially super-fucked — your body, after a couple of drinks in, is nothing more than a fat-seeking missile (courtesy of your brain).

Those doughnuts never stood a chance.