We still look to food to do much more than nourish our bodies and satisfy our hunger. We turn to food in times of great joy and great sadness. When something wonderful happens, we celebrate with a dinner out. We drink champagne, we eat cake, we splurge on nice meals. Food becomes part of the rejoicing. And the opposite is true, too. There’s a long tradition of providing food to those who are grieving. We band together to provide meals to friends in crisis—you may, at some point in your life, have signed up on a spreadsheet or email thread to bring meals to someone mourning, someone recovering, someone struggling. In times of sadness, we instinctively want to provide comfort in a tangible way. And very often, we do that with food.
Food is there for all of it—the good times and the bad. And to some extent, it makes sense. It’s fun to go out and celebrate a raise, an anniversary, or a graduation. And it feels right that when people are truly suffering, the last thing they should worry about is putting together a meal. In these moments of tragedy or triumph, food is a worthy and welcome ally.
The problem comes when we use food to comfort and reward ourselves when the stakes are much, much lower. Finally I got the kids to sleep, now I can eat those cookies I’ve been eyeing. That big meeting today was a mess, time for a big glass of wine. These mundane highs and lows are challenging. But they are not worthy of great sadness or great celebration. Or, really, food.
And we know it, too. Imagine going out for dinner to celebrate fixing the washing machine. Or delivering a meal to a friend who had a bad sunburn. It sounds ridiculous. But we still give ourselves mini-rewards for minor successes, and mini-comforts for minor irritations—and they often involve food. We won’t buy ourselves a celebratory cake, but we might well take a slice if there’s some in the refrigerator. Or we might find ourselves a bag of chips or a cold beer. Each of these could easily be several hundred calories. And worse still, it’s generally at the end of a long day that we find ourselves wanting this reward or comfort—the worst possible time for our bodies. Do that regularly, and it adds up fast.
There’s a reason we do this, of course. Food is a natural reward. Think of Ivan Pavlov and his studies of classical conditioning in dogs—he trained them with food. The comfort foods we usually turn to—the ones full of starch and sugar—are scientifically proven to improve our mood. Ever hear someone refer to a particularly enticing snack as being “like crack”? Eating tasty food seems to activate the same parts of the brain as addictive drugs and even cause the release of natural opiates. Studies have shown that carbohydrates in particular increase serotonin release, the chemical in the body that boosts mood. The more serotonin, the better you feel. Fatty foods are the same. Brain scans of participants in a 2011 study, who were fed either a solution of fatty acids or a saline solution via a feeding tube, showed that those who got the fatty acids had less activity in the areas of the brain that controlled sadness, even after listening to “sad classical music.” (Yes, people actually volunteered for this study—with sad music and a feeding tube.)
So what’s wrong with that? Better than actual crack at least, right? If food really does help with our mood, isn’t that a good thing?
Yes and no. That relief is temporary. The bad day still lingers, smothered by the brownie, pretzel, or muffin. And just like hungry ghosts, you aren’t really looking for food. What the ghosts truly want is relief from the void created by desire, greed, anger, and ignorance—yet they keep trying to fill that empty feeling with food, even though it never works. Sound familiar?
Not only are these self-soothing snacks not all that soothing, but when we use food to comfort and provide relief from stress, we’re using it at a time when we can least afford the calories. A recent Ohio State University study of 58 healthy middle-aged women revealed that experiencing one or more stressful events the day before eating a single high-fat meal actually slowed their metabolism. And not just a little—enough to “add up to almost 11 pounds across a year” according to the authors. Stress seems to cause the body to freak out and cling to the calories, thinking it might need them later. This may be a biological holdover from times of famine, or when we weren’t all that sure when we’d spear our next woolly mammoth. Whatever we’re stressed about today—whether an ill loved one, a struggling relationship, a financial burden, or a lousy job—probably won’t cause us to starve tomorrow. But our bodies haven’t evolved to know the difference.
And it gets worse. Overeating for any reason often leads to these same negative emotional states that then trigger more overeating. A study of both normal-weight and overweight women in Germany found that they felt sadness, shame, and anxiety after eating high-calorie foods—with the overweight women reporting the most intense emotional responses. So we overeat when we’re sad or stressed, then get more sad and stressed when we overeat. In between, we gain weight, which is also associated with depression and makes everything worse. It’s another vicious cycle of “overeating, weight gain, and depressed mood.”
Luckily, there are many ways to deal with stress. The healthiest approach is to take steps to address the actual cause. That may mean facing the reality of a bad relationship, or seeking out a new job, or saying no to commitments that have you stretched too thin. Social diversion—basically hanging out with friends or family—also works well. In fact, of all the ways to distract yourself, this seems to be the most effective.
What psychologists call “emotion-oriented coping” is the most dangerous. This is when you blame yourself, daydream, fantasize, and otherwise ruminate on your miserable life. Maybe lying in bed listening to sad music. Don’t do that. This often leads to emotional eating—perhaps because it just doesn’t work on its own. Awful-izing rarely makes us feel better.
On the other hand, meditation and mindfulness—a few minutes of pure silence and peace—have been shown to help significantly. Similarly, studies of yoga for relieving stress and anxiety are very promising, and have even shown that yoga can reduce preoccupations with food for those with serious eating disorders. Physical exercise has long been known to improve our moods, and also seems to help us fight anxiety. Exposure to nature helps many people. You may have to try several things before you find something that works for you. But don’t let yourself use food as your cure.
You will slip up, of course, now and again. These are hard habits to break. But think carefully about just how often you are engaging in these behaviors, and see them for what they are—a temporary fix that can cause a lasting problem. And remember the lesson of the hungry ghosts. The unsettled self can never be sated with food.
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