Why Do We Love Drunk Food?

Why do we crave salty and fatty food when we’re drunk? It might actually have something to do with how we’re all genetically hardwired. Or not.

Drunk food is, would you believe it, the food that you eat when you’re drunk. It’s the Jenga stacks of chips and bready pizzas that you turn to when you’re three sheets to the wind and in need of something – anything, really – to soak up the copious amounts of alcohol you’ve consumed and nudge you gently back towards sobriety.

At university, my go-to post-club drunk food was usually a big fat kebab drenched in enough garlic sauce to give me an excuse for my lack of snogging throughout the rest of the night. It was a kebab I’d typically pick up from either the brilliantly-named Jason Donervan on Park Street or at Taka Taka just off the triangle. To this day, I’m not completely sure what Taka Taka puts in their magic rolls (according to research it’s a dreamy combination of chicken, halloumi, tabbouleh, red onions, mango and pineapple salsa, cabbage, hot chilli, and mint yoghurt), but I am completely sure that it’s still something I find myself craving whenever I’ve had one too many drinks.

Just like everyone has their own personal hangover cure, everyone has their own go-to drunk food too. The food you eat in an attempt to pre-empt a hangover and fight off a sick for as long as possible. In Germany, currywurst and fries is the favoured late-night scran; in Canada, they favour a hearty portion of poutine to end the sesh; and Japan’s main weapon of choice is a slurpable ramen. This is, quite obviously, a sweeping generalisation that doesn’t take into account all the intricacies of the different drinking cultures around the world but something that a lot of drinking foods around the world seem to have in common is that they’re usually heavy on the salt and fat. But why is it that we tend to crave different food when we’re drunk compared to when we’re sober? Why does the thought of eating an entire bucket of KFC to yourself seem like a good idea after a couple gin tons but absolutely sick-making when you wake up next to a pile of wet bones the day after?

One of the factors that influences our decisions on a chemical level is, of course, alcohol. Alcohol dehydrates you, that’s why whenever you end up breaking the seal you’ll generally start urinating like a racehorse over the course of the rest of the night. A consequence of all that peeing is that your body loses lots of essential salts. That’s why the first thing you often want to ram into your face when you're drunk is something supremely salty. It’s basically your body’s way of trying to rehydrate itself. Clever, right? While we’re on this GCSE Biology train of thought, it’s worth noting that alcohol also causes your blood sugar level to fluctuate. Hence why something carby or something sugary might also make you feel more human when you’ve spent a few hours behaving like an animal in heat.

Fried foods are also favoured by a lot of people because fats can help to soak up alcohol… or, at least, that’s what we’ve been told. There’s not a huge amount of science to back this one up but I’m still going to use it as an excuse to eat whatever I want. To be honest, that’s sort of what I do even when I haven’t been drinking. I’m a hungry man at the best of times but when I’m drunk it genuinely seems like my stomach becomes bottomless. Some dietitians have supposed that there’s evidence alcohol inhibits the effects of leptin – a hormone that suppresses appetite – and also inhibits another hormone that’s supposed to limit your food intake.

One study in the Californian Journal of Health Promotion on the phenomenon of “drunchies” (that’s drunk munchies to me and you) found that American college students were more likely to eat after drinking alcohol and tended to consume less healthy foods. Like, no shit. But the question I’m interested in is: why?

Well, that same study suggests it’s the effects of alcohol on glucose metabolism that encourages excessive food consumption (particularly of foods high in fat, sodium, and sugar) when intoxicated. It also might have something to do with the way that we’re all genetically hardwired with the desire to eat high-fat foods as a result of our primitive instincts. Mammals, as a rule of thumb, tend to seek out fatty food sources that can deliver as many calories as quickly and efficiently as possible. We’ve done that since caveman times. It’s suggested this might be an instinctual fight-or-flight response that’s rekindled within us once we get drunk and lose all of our modern inhibitions and intricate knowledge about things like the glycemic index and the food pyramid. I mean, how else would something like a deep-fried Mars bar have been invented? Ugg the caveman could have hunted for days with one of those fuelling him from the inside.

A factor related to that instinctual inclination for high-fat foods is how alcohol impacts our levels of restraint. By, more often than not, lowering them to the level where you’re willing to say “yes” to questions like: “should we get in another round of Jägerbombs?” or “do you fancy Steve Buscemi?”. A lot of people will also tag their drunk food choices onto the growing litany of bad decisions that have already been made. The damage has already been done when you requested Cascada six times at the DJ booth, so why not get an XL portion of cheesy chips to cap off the night?

Another reason for our drunken feasting is grounded in more psychosocial explanations. Eating a kebab after you’ve been drinking is, after all, an integral part of the drinking ritual here in the UK; it’s often touted as an essential part of a night out and a prime opportunity to socialise with friends and recap the shenanigans of the last few hours. Missing out on that can give you some pretty intense FOMO. This also ties into the fact that most of the food options available to us late at night tend to be fast. You’re hardly going to be able to find a quinoa and leafy green salad bowl on the high street at 1am but a 12-inch pizza for £4.99? You can’t move for them.

In that regard, our desire for crap food when we’re drunk is something of a chicken and egg situation – was it our demand for these fatty, salty foods that forced them to become so prevalent late at night or has our demand for them been fuelled by the fact that they’re the only options around? I’m not entirely sure. But I am sure that, after a few pints of Guinness, I want my chicken to be deep-fried and my egg to be sunny-side up.

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