How emotions can be the trigger behind dietary choices

choco chip cookies
“I’m feeling lonely on this cozy rainy day, let me make my favorite chocolate-chip cookies to cheer myself up.”

pizza boxes


“I’m too exhausted, and the stress of work is driving me crazy so let’s order a pizza to relax a bit.”

slice of blueberry cheesecake

“I just broke up with my partner and can’t deal with my emotions. Let me go out for some cheesecake to forget all about it.”

These are few of the many instances when our desire for comfort food is triggered – be it bad weather or an emotional tension, a bad day on the job or relationship trouble. We find ourselves constantly craving comfort food. But the next question we should ask ourselves is “what’s the harm here if comfort food makes my stress go away?”

That … right there … is the main problem. The stress is reduced temporarily. In the above examples:

  1. Can going out for some cheesecake allow me to erase the memory of a bitter break up?
  2. Can I feel the same warmth in the company of cookies as I would in the company of people close to me?
  3. Will my work pressures go away by eating a pizza?
The answer to all these questions is a big fat “No”. Now, let me break it down for you in simple terms.

stress graffiti wall

What is comfort food?

Our brain associates the term “comfort food” with foods which are a source of pleasure. Is there any ideal comfort food that works for everyone in every kind of situation? Well, there is no one standard comfort food because different individuals associate different food items with pleasure or nostalgia. However, according to multiple studies conducted over the years, an identifiable pattern is derived in that people turn to food high in fat and sugar in times of stress.

The research conducted by the NCBI states that

In both humans and animals, a shift toward choosing more pleasurable and palatable foods is observed irrespective of caloric intake changes associated with stress. The foods eaten during times of stress typically favor those of high fat and/or sugar content.

With occasional episodes of stress and comfort eating, the impact could be minimal. But, in today’s day and age, mental stress has become quite a dominant part of our lives. As a result, resorting to comfort food as a coping mechanism is not the ideal way.

But do we even know if it’s really comforting. Or is it just an illusion building up toward major health issues: obesity, a severe case of stress/depression, inflammation and many more?

How does this work?? Why do we call it comfort food if it’s just a sugar-coated mirage??

butterfly pupa

The answer lies in our history: Evolution. One thing that is common across the globe is the way we have evolved over the years from our ancestors and the reason why we crave comfort food in the first place. The chemical process in our brain, where in the stress system and pleasure system interact, is what leads to cravings for comfort food.

The basic idea is that our ancestors did not have access to a wide range of taste-bud friendly comfort foods. In fact, physical threat to their survival was a common cause of stress, they had to work hard to seek food to eliminate this stress and achieve pleasure. Moreover, the unprocessed food available to them was quite bland compared to today’s processed food. Given the scarcity of food options back in the day when survival was at risk, getting an opportunity to eat was a source of pleasure and comfort. Consequently, their brains developed in a way that in times of stress, eating food increased pleasure and reduced stress by releasing pleasure chemicals.

However, these days, the major source of stress is not survival but mental. According to a survey report released by the American Psychological Association, 45% of respondents confirmed that they are under a lot of stress. Multiple instances of prolonged mental stress are quite common. Since we evolved from our ancestors, our brains function in the same way it did for our ancestors. The brain is programmed to release the stress chemical (Cortisol) under any kind of stress. The primary job of this chemical is to make us act on our instincts. Now, Acting on instinct in the context of eating simply means that we give in to our cravings for pleasure. Stress chemical amplifies the amount of the chemical guiding our cravings (Dopamine).

Therefore, our body does anything it can on instinct to reach for the comfort food that gives us pleasure and shuts down the stress system by releasing pleasure chemicals thereby indicating that the stress is temporarily gone.

cigarette hamburger

But the bigger problem here is that our body resorts to this workflow as it’s go-to solution. Any time we feel low and, emotionally or mentally burdened/exhausted, we turn to comfort food. With time, our body gets habituated to a given intake of food and to get pleasure it must increase its intake (just like addiction).

Gradually our intake increases and our body’s reliance on comfort food increases. Now every time we surrender to our cravings for comfort food, we’re stressed about its consequences on our body weight. This further becomes a source of stress which increases the amount of stress chemical in the brain. Subsequently, the whole process of how this chemical makes it difficult to resist our cravings and triggers us to reach for comfort food for pleasure is then repeated!

  1. Ironically the stress about getting overweight is reduced temporarily by eating more.
  2. And this is the vicious cycle that has made the idea of comfort food and stress eating so popular in modern healthcare.

In distant future, the solution could be for our brains to evolve in a way that it incorporates today’s environment and factors in all possible outcomes. But, evolution will happen at its own pace. In the meantime, we need to understand the core idea and dynamics of comfort food and give it a thought. Some common suggestions which we usually receive from our friends and family to avoid stress eating are to snack healthy, stay away from our temptations, or plan our meals to avoid getting hungry in times of stress. However, just relying on these tips and tricks would not be enough.

In my opinion, a potential solution that can work for us is to be mindful of what we are eating and when we are eating. Awareness is crucial. Secondly, impulse control is the key. No matter how hard you try to snack healthy, you would still find yourself going back to sugary delicacies. If you combine Awareness with Impulse Control you would not need to rely on any other hacks. This could serve as a solution that favors long term health over short term comfort.

What would be your take on it?

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