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Eating When Stressed: Why You Crave Comfort Foods

Comfort Foods

While it may seem that stress and comfort foods are perfectly suited for each other, there are many reasons why we should not only avoid comfort foods but avoid food altogether when experiencing stress.

Oftentimes, people turn to food for relief. People tend to eat the same groups of foods for comfort. Sometimes, these foods are nostalgic and often starchy or sugary.

There is a biochemical reason why the body and the mind begin to crave what we call “comfort food.”

  • The sugars in a carbohydrate-heavy meal prompt the increase of serotonin production in the brain.
  • Serotonin is one of the neurotransmitters in our body that makes us feel good.
The problem: carbohydrates that may make us relaxed or sedated for a few hours later contribute to inflammation and feed pathogenic microorganisms in our gut.

Why the Body Doesn’t Want Food When You Are Under Stress

Whether sitting unhappily in traffic for hours or fighting with your spouse, perceived stress will set off the same cascade of chemicals in the body.

This chemical cascade involves the same chemicals that would be released if a wild animal were chasing you. That is how far back in history our stress response goes. Our stress response is in place as a survival mechanism.

Do you think you would ever nervously munch away at a cracker while being chased by a tiger? Not likely. And nature agrees: there is no value in food while running for your life. When you are under stress, your body does not care about digesting food. Instead your body makes all its energy available for fight-or-flight.

  • Mindful eating is the best way to enjoy what you eat and digest well at the same time. Set aside time to enjoy how your food tastes and how each delicious bite nourishes your body.

    That is why the nervous system uses chemicals to tell the body when the best time is to relax.

  • This relaxation time is when we use energy to digest food and absorb nutrients.
  • This relaxation time engages the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • A stressful event is managed by the sympathetic nervous system. During a stress response:
    • Salivation decreases.
    • Saliva not only adds moisture to the mouth, but it also activates enzymes that literally break food particles into smaller, usable parts.
    • Without enzyme activation, food remains in large particles.
    • If the gut is inflamed, large food particles can then get into the bloodstream.
    • Large food particles are more likely to ferment in the gut.
    • Digestion ceases.
    • Cortisol levels rise.
    • Inflammation increases.
    • Immune function diminishes.

Mindful Eating

Mindful eating is one way to quickly engage the parasympathetic nervous system while also encouraging optimal digestion. When we mindfully eat, we become aware of:

  • How the food tastes.
  • Where each taste falls on our tongue and in what sequence.
  • How the food feels in our mouth and in our body.
  • The memories associated with the food.
  • The path that the food took to arrive to us.
  • Our genuine appreciation of such nourishing and delicious food.

What to Remember Most About This Article:

  • Stress engages the sympathetic nervous system.
  • The stress response is the least desirable time to eat. Throw the idea of comfort food out the window.
  • Eat only when you are still.
  • Stillness and calmness are a reflection of the parasympathetic response, when your body is best able to digest food and use nutrients.
  • Practice mindful eating.

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  • David Burham

    While the scientific and physiological facts/tendencies mentioned in the above are all true - to varying degrees - the last comment from "E" seems to be an excellent observation. Stress also uses a significant amount of energy - call it "fight or flight energy", if you must. And, at some point, either sooner or later, the body will begin reacting to NOT having food in ways that are stressful, either mentally and/or physically.
    And yes: Serotonin does make one feel better. God forbid that one should do something to feel better during a time of stress.
    Perhaps "Donna" has time to always practice "mindful eating", only eats when she is still (and not stressed) and, of course, NEVER when she is being chased by a tiger (that analogy was ridiculous in the extreme. I don't eat when I'm sleeping, either, but that is usually the time when I am the least stressed. How about eating when I sleep, Donna? That would seem to make the most logical sense, given your parameters).
    For the remainder of the human beings on the planet who both have food to eat and are also busy and even stressed at times, we'll do the best we can to put these suggestions into practice.
    But don't berate yourself if you can't do all of them all the time. That would be very stressful.

  • Colleen Murphy

    Thank You, Donna. You give such GREAT Information and Advice!
    It is really very important and very much needed.
    People NEED to know this! I think so, anyway.
    Thank You

  • katie

    I suggest consuming foods that are easily absorbed into the system, like a good quality protein powder, or spirulina, a veggie juice, etc. and look into calming tea's like holy basil and passion flower that will calm you. supplementing with 5htp is great to calm you and reduce carb cravings but its best to try to reduce the stress naturally. either calming activities like yoga, or intensive exercise will reduce the stress, depending on which type of activity your body responds best to.

  • E

    What about if you are stressed and cannot eat ,and then get stress because you have not been eating enough,for a long period of time?

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