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Why Food Tastes Better When You're Hating Life

The science behind comfort-food cravings.

by Korin Miller
Nov 24 2016, 3:00pm

Those wings you ordered on election night. The mile-high mound of buttery mashed potatoes that helps you survive Thanksgiving every year. On any given day, millions of people seek comfort in calories—thousands of calories—when high-stress situations present themselves.

According to data from online delivery service Seamless, orders of heavier foods spike dramatically around finals time among college students, who suddenly feel an increased craving for popcorn chicken (+96 percent), chicken bacon ranch pizza (+60 percent), and steak fries (+56 percent). During the second Presidential debate this year, orders of foods like fried chicken, mac and cheese, and various desserts soared.  

The link between stress and eating has caught the attention of researchers. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the authors came to the (okay, pretty obvious) conclusion that people who felt burned out were more likely to engage in uncontrolled eating than people who had their shit relatively together.

Another study published in by researchers in Romania found that people who suppress their emotions are also more likely to take their feelings out on a carton of General Tso's. 

But while science has proven that stress eating is a thing, it's not entirely clear why it happens. "There are two conflicting theories," says Clifford Segil, a neurologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. One has to do with your brain and the hormones that regulate it. "When we eat comfort food, your brain releases higher levels of endorphins that make you feel good," Segil explains. High-stress situations can lower those same endorphins, which makes the pleasurable sensations attached to eating feel more pronounced.

The other theory is linked to the adrenal glands—located on the top of each kidney—that produce several hormones. Stress can make your adrenal glands secrete adrenaline, which triggers feelings of hunger, Segil explains. "Both theories make sense," he says. "When you're stressed, you want to do things that make you feel better."

Psychologists believe there may be learned behaviors fueling these cravings, too. "Not all people eat under stress, but for those who do, the action appears to be rooted in a long-standing association between eating and feeling soothed," says Alicia H. Clark, a clinical psychologist in Washington DC. "Food can be a familiar place to turn in order to numb emotional experiences, while also facilitating a sense of satiety and fullness that feels calming."

Of course, not all foods are created equal—it's unlikely you'll reach for a carrot stick when you're frazzled. Preliminary research in mice from the Monell Center suggests that stress might make our sweet receptors all the more excitable. That creates a vicious circle, Clark says, especially since high-sugar foods are also linked to increased anxiety and inhibited concentration, which can in turn cause more stress.

Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, has looked into the topic of stress eating and believes the primary motivation is actually distraction—not satiation. "You do it because you want to distract yourself from what feels like a bad state of mind," he says. Comfort foods are typically the grub of choice, but they don't have to be. "The interesting thing about stress eating is it's the activity we're after, not the food."

Wansink's research found that people in stressful situations will eat any food that's in front of them—healthy or otherwise—and were both equally satisfied and less stressed. People just typically reach for comfort foods because they tend to have way more salt, fat, and sugar. They're also the foods you enjoyed as a kid. 

The same prediction came true when people simply distracted themselves from stressful situations with busywork, like cleaning up a room or returning a business call. "It could be anything—it'll reduce stress to the same extent," he says.

If you're going to eat no matter what, Wansink recommends first trying a healthier, crunchier option—like bell peppers, apples, or nuts, he says, noting that there's something about the satisfaction of the sound that subconsciously makes people feel better.

Also important to remember: While stress eating may make you feel good in the moment, the feeling tends to be fleeting. "Like everything, endorphins fade," Segil says. Unfortunately, empty calories don't. That's why Wansink recommends turning to distracting behaviors. "Try straightening up a room—I guarantee, in 15 minutes you'll feel better."