You can’t explain it, but you know every once in a while you should have that bowl of ice cream, extra-large pizza, fudge, bowl of mashed potatoes, or half a pound of bacon and eggs fried in butter. Aside from these events, you generally do a good job of managing your diet and if you could control your cravings, you would be able to shed that extra layer of weight. The problem is that eating these foods feels so good that you can’t imagine giving them up.
That craving for high-sugar, high-fat foods can date back to prehistoric times, when humans were exposed to short-term physical threats that triggered a strong stress response. The body was flooded with cortisol to help manage stress, and signals were sent to the brain to call for emergency food supplies. This fight-or-flight response helped people survive when marauding mastodons or a rogue tribe threatened their lives. Elevated hormone levels and warning signs remain in your body for up to twenty-four hours after a stressful event.
Fortunately, you don’t normally face such life-threatening stressful situations, and you have immediate access to food whenever you want. Unfortunately, there is another crucial way in which his life differs from that of his prehistoric ancestors. That is the sustained stress of navigating modern life. You may face many small stresses every day, like avoiding a detour because on the way to work, an overbearing boss, rude customers, error-prone coworkers, overloaded transit systems, and more. Each of these stimulates the stress response and elevates cortisol and other hormones. Since they occur daily, the twenty-four hour period never expires and the response mode remains in effect.
When your body stores fat, it tells the brain that the body has met the urgency of the situation by preparing for the future, and the brain tells all systems to relax. This explains why you feel so good after eating comfort foods. The sugar in the donuts quickly converts to fat deposits, your body relaxes from its stress state, and you feel rewarded for consuming the food. The more frequent these craving events, the more likely you are to have difficulty maintaining a healthy weight, as well as increasing your risk of other health problems that result from eating too much sugar and gaining too much weight.
The good news is that your body doesn’t know the difference between comfort foods and other, healthier foods. The next time you’re tempted to reach for that pint of Rocky Road ice cream simply as a source of comfort, grab some raw walnuts or almonds and eat them instead. Your body will reward you with the same relaxing and satisfying response while getting essential nutrients and beneficial fatty acids at the same time. It will manage the stress response and prevent adding unwanted pounds at the same time.
In the meantime, now that you know that food cravings are your body’s attempt to control stress, you can try other techniques that are effective at reducing stress and keeping your body balanced. Various forms of exercise are great ways to reduce stress. This could be as simple as taking a walk or doing some Pilates routines. Relaxation through sleep, meditation, and immersion in nature are also good ways to relieve stress. Train yourself to turn the craving for ice cream into a craving to put on your walking shoes and step out for added comfort.