The Queasy Science Behind the Hangover Munchies
They’re as bad as the Taco Bell you had just before you passed out last night
If I’m hungover, the last thing I want to eat — assuming all food doesn’t make my stomach lurch — is something good for me, like a fruit smoothie or a big, leafy salad. Nope, I want something warm, something salty and savory, something with cheese and soy sauce. Eating when you’re hungover can be like eating when you’re stoned: What are you eating? A lo mein quesadilla, and it’s fucking delicious — so fuck you!
Obviously, I’m not revealing any real secrets here. Much like eating while drunk leads most of us straight to the Taco Bell drive-thru instead of Sweetgreen, that people eat shit for breakfast (or more likely, brunch) the day after a night of drinking is common knowledge. It’s now also, thanks to a handful of researchers headed up by Jessica Kruger at the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior at the University of Buffalo, scientific fact. “People are absolutely eating more unhealthy foods the day after drinking than they normally would on an average day,” Kruger says.
The rationale behind what we eat when we’re hungover is rooted in a mix of lore and the habits that lore inspires: How many times have you heard, for example, that carbs and grease will “soak up the alcohol” still in your system, or that the protein in eggs, meat and cheese will make you feel less like you’ve had the shit beaten out of you with a Stupid Stick? But alas: “There is no magic food,” Kruger explains. “A lot of the reason people focus on greasy foods the next day is because of the proliferation of hangover ‘cures.’ The only way to cure a hangover is to not get a hangover in the first place.”
Still, it doesn’t stop us from trying. And while there may not be a “cure” for the crushing headache and ever-present nausea of a hangover, the cravings for certain foods are real. Your body’s not stupid; it knows it’s missing a lot of necessary nutrients and processing a bunch of nasty toxins from the night before, so it wants what will replace those nutrients and mitigate those toxins — and it wants them ASAP. Particularly…
What You Want: Salt
Why You Want It: Because you’re dehydrated.
How It Helps: Dehydration is a well-known side effect of drinking booze. Since alcohol is a diuretic, it automatically motivates your body to shed fluids and causes multiple trips to the bathroom. But being dehydrated is much more complicated than being low on water. A George Mason University scientist has explained that, in addition to all of the water you’re losing each time you hit the john, “certain salts and potassium — required for proper nerve and muscle function — are also lost.”
It’s easy to forget that sodium, while warned against in high doses, is an electrolyte and vital nutrient. While too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, heart damage and kidney disease, low levels of sodium can cause diarrhea and vomiting, two of everyone’s favorite hangover symptoms. So while I wouldn’t recommend this…
…I would recommend hitting the salt shaker a little harder the morning after on whatever you’re attempting to put into your stomach.
What You Want: Starch
Why You Want It: Because your blood sugar is dangerously low.
How It Helps: In addition to being dehydrated, your blood sugar is precariously low after a night of drinking. “To bring your blood sugar back up to normal, you really just need to eat anything with some carbs,” Amy Shapiro, founder and director of Real Nutrition told NBC last winter. So go ahead, have pasta for breakfast. (Let’s be honest: You’re not fiending for fibrous, carb-heavy fruits and vegetables.) But Shapiro says, “balance it out with protein or healthy fats to prevent further blood sugar drops.”
Butter is totally a healthy fat, right?
What You Want: Eggs
Why You Want It: Because your liver is working overtime.
How It Helps: Eggs are chock-full of cysteine, an amino acid that helps your liver break down acetaldehyde, the toxic byproduct of metabolized alcohol that binds to proteins and other important compounds, causing a racing heart, sweating, nausea and vomiting. Eating eggs then is akin to sending in reinforcements for your liver. If, that is, you can keep them down. (This is where the butter comes in.)
What You Want: Fructose
Why You Want It: Because your hands are shaking.
How It Helps: According to the George Mason scientist mentioned above, “Alcohol turns the body’s supply of glycogen into glucose, and sends it out of the body in the urine. Lack of this energy source is a key part in the feeling of weakness, fatigue and lack of coordination the next morning.” In plainer English, this, too, goes back to your blood sugar being low — especially if you’ve gone without food for a while. Fruits or fruit juice will help with these tremors.
Though when it comes to beating the shakes, I prefer gummy worms.
Haley Hamilton is MEL’s booze correspondent. She last wrote about why cocktails in a can are no longer a punchline.