Why beer, then chips?

I was suddenly curious about why I start to crave trashy food when I’m at the pub. I’m sure you know what I mean: when you first walk into the pub, the sea bass looks great, but after a beer I just want something filling, preferably with chips.

People appeal to chemistry, evolution, inhibitions and desires when they try to explain why this happens.

When people appeal to chemistry for justification for their beer-fueled desires, conversation turns to the loss of water and electrolytes during the many toilet breaks—alcohol induces urine flow as chemcases charmingly puts it—as causes for the munchies. The loss of water causes blood to become more concentrated, causing the dehydration symptoms. Several online sources, including chemcases, agree that the loss of electrolytes cause a craving for salt to redress the balance.

At first this seems to hold water: the foods we crave are notoriously high in salt, so we naturally go for the hits our bodies remember from them. However, most studies showing this are based on acute and chronic alcohol intake. Low sodium is associated with “massive” beer intake, according to chemcases, and a second article seems to support this view that the effects become noticeable after sustained drinking.

It could be the case, of course, that the smaller imbalances caused by an evening of drinking could cause light symptoms of the problems chronic intake does. Perhaps there’s a slight increase in desire for salt. It would seem likely, from what I’ve read, that this popular explanation is wishfully extrapolated from the underlying science.

This effect alone, if it exists at all, realistically feels like it would be too subtle to cause such a turn around after just a pint or two. A second tack is to think about our natural desires and alcohol’s freeing effect. It’s well established that we have a natural desire to pig out on sugar, salt and fat. Back in the day, when we were living as hunter gatherers, these essentials would be hard to come by so our bodies evolved to crave these items to ensure we would eat enough when we had the chance.

Alcohol is famed for reducing inhibitions of various sorts, and one inhibition we currently carry—at least, I do—is against consumption of junk food. Hidden in there somewhere, still, is still that primal desire for sugars and fat, and it seems reasonable the dis-inhibiting effects of alcohol draw this out and a burger might suddenly seem the best option.

I’m left unsatisfied by this alone, however. The healthier option really is tempting when I arrive—and not just intellectually, but in a mouth-watering manner. But that changes after the first pint, usually irrevocably. What causes this change?

I feel the next place to turn in my quest is the environment. The people around consuming the often great looking, and smelling, food. The happy memories of eating with friends. The ready availability of the types of food I’m starting to want, combined with a dearth of healthy options. And, following from this, the long and, at this time of year, cold walk to healthier food.

Bringing in this, the environment’s ready temptations and happy memories, seems to be the completing piece which satisfies my curiosity. I’m sure it’s not the whole story, but I can imagine the natural craving, disinhibition and happy memories create a perfect storm of factors that brings me to the trashy, but oh-so-satisfying food.