Chicken nuggets are delicious. Chicken nuggets, when you’re drunk, taste like hearing “Stairway to Heaven” for the first time. But what explains the power of these insatiable drunk munchies, a.k.a. “drunchies”? Why, regardless of our best dietary intentions, do we so often find ourselves headed straight to the Easy Mac or doughnuts when we’re under the influence?
Plenty of sober people crave junk food, of course, but booze ratchets up these cravings by messing with your blood-sugar levels. When your liver is all tied up processing excessive alcohol levels, it can interfere with normal blood-sugar production, resulting in a dip in your blood-sugar level (kind of ironic, considering how sugar-packed your cranberry-vodka is) that causes you to crave foods that will bring it back up. Doing so with an apple rather than buffalo wings is challenging under the best of circumstances, but when your inhibitions are lowered, you’re even more likely to choose whatever’s quick and satisfying in that moment.
Researchers at Northwestern University demonstrated this in one particularly delicious experiment. They left two groups of subjects, one drunk and one sober, with unlimited ice cream and told them they could eat as much as they wanted. The drunk group ate a lot more of the ice cream, and this held true even when the subjects ingested the alcohol unknowingly (quite an experiment …), suggesting it wasn’t simply about social or cultural norms pertaining to alcohol and food. Rather, the researchers argued, alcohol simply makes people more relaxed, and when people are relaxed, they’re more likely to indulge. The blood-sugar thing and the lowered-inhibitions thing, then, are a potent one-two punch straight to the face of healthy eating.
There’s also the simple fact that post-drinking food consumption tends to be strongly associated with fun. If you have happy memories of a post-party visit from Domino’s, you’re more likely to call again the next time you’re in a similar (drunken) situation. This phenomenon is best explained by operant conditioning, a type of learning in which a stimulus evokes a behavior which leads to a consequence, thus reinforcing the behavior (think lab rats, levers, and sugar cubes).
“The stimulus is a party environment including intoxication, the behavior is ordering pizza (a few times) at or after a party, and the consequence equals a good time socially (since the party continues, plus pizza is simply the food of the gods),” said University of Wisconsin-Whitewater psychology professor Meg Waraczynski in an email. “Therefore, ordering pizza or whatever in the party environment is reinforced. Do this enough times, and being intoxicated becomes a trigger for ordering pizza.” Or for dollar slices, or McDonald’s, or whatever else.
Of course, you can only analyze this stuff for so long before you want to go directly to the source: drunk eaters themselves. So Science of Us approached a bunch of revelers in Times Square at 2 a.m. on a Saturday and asked about their drunchie habits:
You’ve never seen passion quite like this.