The Science Behind the 3 p.m. Snack Slump

The Science Behind the 3 p.m. Snack Slump

Anjali Prasertong
Feb 26, 2016
Woman tired at work.
(Image credit: racorn/Shutterstock)

You hit it like a wall at work. That drop in energy, accompanied by a deep need for a snack that is sugary, fatty and/or crunchy — it's the 3 p.m. snack slump. Have you ever wondered why it happens so predictably on weekday afternoons? Here's a look at the science that may help explain the late-afternoon slump, and why we crave snacks when it strikes.

Blame Your Lunch

If you've ever eaten a giant burger and fries before sitting back down to work on a slow Friday afternoon, you know that what you eat for lunch can influence how you feel in the afternoon. Not surprisingly, studies looking at the effects of what adults eat for lunch on how they perform later in the day generally find that what you eat makes a difference in not only how you feel, but also how well you function. Heavier lunches seem to have a detrimental effect on cognitive functioning, especially for those who typically eat lighter lunches.

Researchers have also found that changes to the balance of fat, carbohydrates, and proteins in the meal can affect performance, but so far the results have been inconsistent.

And of course, your afternoon snack craving could simply be a result of eating a lower-calorie meal. If you typically eat a smaller lunch, a 3 p.m. snack may just be your body's way of getting the calories you need to fuel you until dinnertime — something Ariel experienced when she started bringing her lunch to work instead of eating out.

You Didn't Get Enough Sleep Last Night

It's no secret — many of us are chronically sleep-deprived. Adults aged 26 to 64 should get between seven to nine hours of sleep a night, but if you have small children, spend a lot of quality time at night with an electronic device, work demanding hours, or otherwise live in the modern world, you know it can be hard to consistently get the amount of sleep you need.

But not getting enough sleep is about more than just feeling tired — researchers have found that sleep deprivation can affect levels of hormones which play a role in hunger and satiety. Not getting the recommended amount of sleep is associated with lower levels of leptin, the "satiety hormone" that helps you feel full, and higher levels of gherlin, a hormone that stimulates appetite.

So instead of vowing to avoid snacks all afternoon, maybe use that willpower to skip "The Bachelor" and go to bed early instead — you might find it's just as effective.

Stress and Hunger May Get Mixed Up in the Afternoon

You probably don't need research to tell you that emotional eating is a real thing or that stress can make you overeat, but a recently published study about the association between stress and hunger adds another possible explanation for the 3 p.m. snack slump. Researchers in the study found that the strength of the relationship between stress and hunger varies throughout the day, peaking in the afternoon on weekdays and in the evening on weekends, which could help explain why that craving for a giant cookie usually strikes during a frantic afternoon at work.

Looking for some healthy ways to beat the 3 p.m. snack slump? We have a few ideas.

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