Dr. Janet Tomiyama has been trying to figure out if eating because of stress works for us. Here is a summary of her findings:
- Rats were given access to comfort food — usually Crisco mixed with sugar!
- Researchers then stressed them out
- Over time, the comfort food actually dampened their stress hormones
- Dampened down their brain’s responsivity to stress
- Dampened down the signaling between the brain and the rest of the body, so they didn’t secrete as many stress hormones.
We tend to be critical of people who eat because of stress BUT “Not just psychologically, but also biologically — people who do a lot of comfort eating tend to show a reduced level of stress hormones and stress.”
What’s happening, according to Tomiyama:
- “When you do anything that’s rewarding to you the reward parts of your brain light up — those parts of the brain can dampen down areas of your brain that are freaking out with negative emotion. And that’s why comfort foods tend to be foods that are high in sugar and fat. They’re really rewarding; they really do light up the reward centers of our brains.”
- There’s also some work showing that when you do comfort eating, it builds up fat in your belly region and that fat pad sends a signal to your brain to decrease the amount of stress hormones that you’re producing.
- Then there’s conditioning. If throughout your whole life, you’ve paired stress relief with comfort foods over and over again, then soon enough, your body is going to automatically respond to eating these comfort foods with relaxation.
Many people have had the experience of being given comfort food to cheer us up as kids. Part of the comfort t then came from bing cared for but that became associated with the food, which now gives us comfort on its own.
“in addition to rodents, we also see comfort eating working in some non-human primate species as well. So my main take home from this is self-compassion: You’re not doing the comfort eating because you’re some sort of weak-willed human being; you’re biologically driven to do this. ” says Tomiyama.
What Tomiyama is trying to do now, is to see if healthy foods can also be comforting. Even in rat studies only unhealthy foods were used. Therein some data from surveys that say there are people who do use healthy foods for stress.
“Nobody stress-eats strawberries, do they?”
Actually, strawberries might work she reports. Anything sweet can dampen stress.