The Science of Stress Eating: Why we Crave Comfort Foods

After a tough day or a case of the blues, many of us find comfort in turning to the pantry, refrigerator, or fast food for a satisfying and mood-boosting meal. These are often what we call comfort foods, often high in carbohydrates and sugar, depending on our cravings. These foods trigger the brain’s pleasure centers, providing temporary relief from stress and anxiety.

According to registered dietitian Kate Ingram, comfort foods, particularly highly processed ones, may improve mood for a short period due to the release of feel-good hormones in the brain. Regardless of how it’s defined, the satisfaction gained from indulging in your favorite comfort foods is undeniable.

Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Mass General Hospital, explains that the associations and memories we have with these foods are what often lead us to turn to them in times of need. She adds that humans are able to make choices and decisions around the foods they eat, tapping into our psychological makeup.

When it comes to the health effects of comfort foods, Naidoo warns that most of them aren’t beneficial in the long run. She explains that while these foods may initially provide a feeling of happiness, they can lead to negative long-term effects such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

However, Naidoo emphasizes that it’s okay to indulge in comfort foods occasionally as completely denying yourself can also have negative effects on mental well-being. Instead, she encourages a balanced approach to eating, avoiding regular intake of highly processed foods while allowing for occasional indulgence without guilt. Ultimately, it’s all about balance to support overall mental health.


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