Why We Like (Or Don’t Like) Comfort Foods

Stress affects your diet — but a brand new study finds that there’s more to the story

Unhealthy Delicious Poutine with French Fries

Most people’s food habits are affected by stress, whether it’s losing your appetite before a work presentation, mindlessly eating from the jellybean jar at the office, or finding comfort in a tub of ice cream after an argument along with your significant other.

The connection between stress and eating has roots within our evolutionary past. Life was no picnic for the ancestors. It’s thought that humans evolved in environments by which food might be scarce, and its availability fluctuated in respect with the seasons. To be able to cope with this unpredictability, we developed a “better safe than sorry strategy.” We’re vulnerable to overeat when food is available, and can store excess energy as fat which we can tap into next time food runs out.

Moreover, it has been argued that stress might trigger foraging behaviors. Acute stress suppresses our appetite, perhaps since it will be self-defeating to search for food whilst in the midst of fending off an instantaneous threat. By contrast, chronic stress increases our appetite. Chronic stress arises when there is ongoing adversity in the surroundings, such as concerns about Comfort food recipes security and personal safety. Thus, chronic stress makes us hungry — and yet also encourages the preference for energy-dense food. Energy-dense foods, which can be, and unsurprisingly, full of fat and sugar, really are a go-to food when experiencing chronic stress. It’s no surprise, as they spark dopamine production in the brain’s reward center, bringing on feelings of pleasure and restoring mood.

Now, a study conducted by Jim Swaffield and S. Craig Roberts investigates how environmental conditions might change food preferences across a wide selection of food items of varying nutritiousness. Specifically, the researchers devised a test to check how the perception of a harsh vs. a secure environment might alter the preference for different types of food over the six major food categories (vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, meats, and sweets).

Here is what Swaffield and Roberts did. First, they’d participants look at images of food that have been displayed on some type of computer screen. Next, participants rated their education to that they wanted to consume each food item. They did this twice. But here’s the twist: the participants rated how much they wanted to consume these food items before and after they were asked to read a verse which was designed to manipulate their perception of the surroundings as “safe” or “harsh&rdquo ;.The passage began, “Imagine this is your situation.” It continued to spell it out a young woman’s living conditions in terms of employment and salary outlook, social support, and personal safety conditions. The harsh scenario described a senior high school dropout with highly conflicted family relationships, and who resided in a dangerous neighborhood. By contrast, the safe scenario was far more rosy: the young woman had a reliable job and a wholesome savings, supportive parents, and a home in a secure and clean area.

What did the researchers find? As expected, cues of environmental harshness heightened the desirability of energy-dense food items, especially meats and sweets. In particular, bacon, cookies, chocolate, and butter were much to the participants’liking. These results support the notion that harsh environmental conditions increase perceptions of food scarcity, which in turn sparks foraging behaviors — with an emphasis on high calorie foods. At once, however, the investigators unearthed that the safe scenario diminished the preference for energy dense foods. Then when the surroundings is perceived as safe, the desire for high calorie foods decreases.

The authors observe that although their study unearthed that cues of environmental conditions can alter food preferences, it doesn’t show that manipulations of the surroundings as safe or harsh would necessarily change a person’s actual caloric intake. Investigating what individuals would literally eat under these kinds of experimental conditions is fodder for future studies, they say. But next time you get a slice of cake you actually don’t need, it might be worthwhile to think about whether it’s the stress that’s talking.

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