Food / Food as Science

Stress Eating: Why do we do it?

W Nia Judelson_ A Joanne Raptis_ T stress eating

Art by Joanne Raptis 

Stress Eating: Why do we do it?

ARTICLE BY NIA JUDELSON | THE SCIENCE ISSUE 2015

Stress and junk food seem to go hand in hand. Find out why we tend to lean towards chocolate instead of salad and how sometimes it’s okay to indulge. 

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It’s midnight and you’re studying for a midterm. Fueled solely by stress and caffeine, you don’t even notice as your hand reaches into a bag of potato chips. Why is it that when you are feeling stressed and upset, your body craves food? And not just any food, but addictive, unhealthy junk foods?

Turns out, a real reason exists for your cravings. When you are stressed, the levels of the hormone cortisol go up. Cortisol rises in a variety of cases, from when you have too much homework to when you are famished. Whatever the reason, when cortisol levels rise, your brain is tricked into thinking that you are going into starvation mode. All of a sudden, your body wants food, even if you are not actually hungry.

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Image courtesy of: http://bit.ly/1IzGJc1

But this still doesn’t explain why you turn towards a cookie and not salad when your body gets these cravings. Your body is actually happier when you eat carbohydrates. Carbs are shown to boost serotonin levels, neurotransmitters in your brain that make you feel joy. Sugary foods, in particular, have this effect. In addition to the higher serotonin levels, the insulin in sugar imitates the effects of serotonin. Now your brain thinks there is a double dose of serotonin flooding through its system on top of what was already there.

Studies show that there is a heightened link between receptors in your brain and receptors in your stomach when you eat fatty foods. Thus, the chemical effects of the foods you eat, such as increased serotonin when eating carbs, will reach your brain faster if the food has more fat content. This immediate gratification makes us instinctively reach for fatty snacks instead of lean ones.

Beyond the neurological and psychological explanations for our cravings during stress: junk food just tastes good! Flavor is in itself a comfort, and can be comforting when you’re in a bad mood. So go ahead, eat a cupcake—you go to Columbia, after all.

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