What makes us eat “comfort food”?

Nov 01, 2011
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What makes us eat “comfort food”? In a word: STRESS!

Recent studies show that most people look for comfort in food when they are stressed. Ice cream, soup, pudding, mashed potatoes, bread, pizza, chocolate, and other high-calorie, high-fat food are just what we want when we feel overwhelmed with stress.

The reason that we want to eat when we feel stress is that our bodies secrete a “hunger hormone” known as ghrelin in response to stress. It is the same chemical our intestines release when we are fasting.  Ghrelin is released from the intestinal tract under fasting conditions, and when we are under stress, which sends a hunger signal to the brain. We think we are hungry when ghrelin reaches our brain.  Most of the time we don’t even question it, we just look for something to eat.

Since stress causes us to produce ghrelin it follows that living with chronic stress may lead to overeating on a regular basis- a leading cause of increased body weight and obesity.

Why does this happen?

Researchers suggest that when our early ancestors were stressed, it was usually in regard to a situation that could be managed through taking action. In order to take action, our ancestors needed to eat something to give them the energy they needed to run, climb, jump and walk long distances. For example when they awoke every day the top item on the agenda was getting food for the day. This is certainly stressful, day after day. So at first stress lead to eating to increase the energy availability that would be needed for hunting animals or walking quickly to a distant area to gather a specific food. In today’s world we are more often stressed because we feel we don’t have enough time to get things done, or we are stressed by environmental situations like heavy traffic, unemployment, low income, relationship woes, and other problems that “eating more” won’t really help us solve.

Of course once we realize what is going on within our body, there are things we can do. It is a case of mind over matter, if anything ever was! When we realize that stress is the cause of a mistaken hunger message, we can refuse to simply eat something. We can think it through and take mindful action.

1.       One option is that we can calm ourselves down to reduce the stress.

a.       Take a walk

b.      Do deep breathing

c.       Work on coming up with ideas for solving the problem

d.      Accept that not all problems have an immediate solution

e.      Make a plan to do something fun with a friend

2.       Another idea is that we can simply refuse to eat when we feel stress.

a.       We can realize that we don’t always want what is in our own best interests

b.      We can review our diet plan and put off eating, or eat a very small amount of something with lower calories

You can read more about ghrelin and the studies on weight gain on the website Science Daily. No doubt you have many creative ideas on how we can address the stress in our lives without losing our plans to eat well and keep fit.


Author: Tanya