Life this year has not been easy. So many changes and so much of it outside of our control. From how we work, exercise, socialise, shop, and school our kids, we have had to adjust our lives at every turn.
It isn’t surprising then, that many of us have been looking for ways to relieve stress at home, turning to activities that bring us joy and comfort. Like eating.
And we weren’t alone. Nationwide, different foods kept disappearing from our supermarket shelves. What started with staples, such as pasta, rice and other dried goods, then shifted towards other items that couldn’t exactly be described as necessities. Things like yeast and pastry were first to go. This was followed by increases in sales of herbs and spices, Asian sauces, cheeses and desserts.
Instagram too, was flooded with images of delights made in our own kitchens – sourdough, bread, cakes, biscuits, pastries, soups, noodles and other tasty treats.
The demand for comfort food was clear. Everyone was on board!
So why do we turn to food when stressed? What drives these comfort food cravings?
According to Dr Belinda Henry, a physiologist at the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute, these food cravings are driven by hormones released when we experience chronic stress.
“The current pandemic represents a perfect example of a chronic stressor,” explains Dr Henry.
“When we are exposed to any sort of stress, our adrenal glands respond by producing the hormone cortisol. Cortisol activates those systems in our body that help us directly deal with the stress, like increasing energy production, while suppressing other processes that are not essential to our survival at that time, like reproduction.”
However, too much cortisol can lead to a number of problems, like weight gain, depression, and decreased immune function. To protect against this happening, our bodies have an inbuilt system to regulate cortisol production.
“When cortisol reaches a certain level, it signals to the stress system in the brain to switch off, so the adrenal glands stop producing cortisol. This means our cortisol levels rise when we need it, and then quickly fall back to within a normal range. This works well when the stress is experienced for a short time – our system is great at self-regulating.
“However, when we are stressed for a chronic period of time, particularly when that stress is out of our control, our stress system works in overdrive. And the normal cortisol switch doesn’t respond, so we continue to produce more and more cortisol.”
It is this high level of cortisol that drives our food-seeking behaviour. And not just any food. Research has shown that in both animals and humans, we head straight for high fat, high sugar food options .
When we eat these types of food, an interesting effect is observed on our cortisol levels.
“Eating foods high in fat and sugar appears to dampen down our cortisol system. If we are exposed to continued or new stress after eating these types of food, we produce less cortisol,” explains Dr Henry.
Other hormones also drive comfort eating
Cortisol is not the only hormone tempting us towards tasty treats.
Ghrelin is a hormone produced in our stomach that acts in the brain to control appetite. Ghrelin levels increase when we haven’t eaten for a while, and then decrease after eating. These changes stimulate appetite, regulate food intake and contribute to food-seeking behaviour.
Ghrelin also acts in areas of the brain responsible for the rewarding properties of food .
“Eating comfort foods – those high in fat and sugar – activates the brain’s pleasure pathways. When we are exposed to high amounts of stress, activation of these pleasure pathways, by eating comfort foods, combats the level of stress we feel,” says Dr Henry.
“This is another reason eating comfort food makes us feel better.”
If eating comfort food truly brings comfort, should we fight these cravings?
“Sometimes when we are stressed, eating small amounts of comfort foods doesn’t hurt, as long as we don’t persist with this type of eating,” says Dr Henry.
“We know foods that are high in both fat and sugar are not good for us and if we eat them regularly and over the long term, they can lead to obesity and increase the risk for diabetes type 2 and cardiovascular disease.”
“Rather than waiting for the urge to comfort eat, we can look for other ways to decrease the amount of stress we are feeling. This can avoid feeling like we need to comfort eat in the first place,” advises Dr Henry.
“It may not be possible to reduce the cause of the stress, like in this pandemic, but we can look for stress-reducing activities that make us feel better, like taking a walk, doing some exercise, talking to people we trust or engaging in mindfulness activities.”
“There are plenty of better ways to deal with stress than with chocolate and chips. Even so, a little comfort eating, balanced with a sensible diet and regular physical activity, can be good for the soul. It is called comfort eating for a good reason”.
 Dallman MF, Pecoraro NC & la Fleur SE. (2005). Chronic Stress and comfort foods: Self-medication and abdominal obesity. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 19, 275-280.
 Davis J. (2018). Hunger, ghrelin and the gut. Brain Research. 1693 (Pt B) 154-158.