Ever notice how stress makes you hungry? It’s not just in your mind. When stress is chronic, as it so often is in our chaotic, fast-paced world, your body produces high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for comfort foods which are usually salty, sweet, and fried.
This is because the mind is primed to seek fulfilling meals by activating a series of responses that are not only stimulated by all the senses, but also memory. Even fantasizing about eating tasty foods can bring the body’s complex reward system to life. Food that triggers the reward system has been shown to elevate mood and release stress temporarily.
Eating can be a way to temporarily silence or “stuff down” uncomfortable emotions, including anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, loneliness, resentment, and shame. While you’re numbing yourself with food, you can avoid the difficult emotions you’d rather not feel.
Physically, comfort foods work to make the body feel full or satisfied. Emotionally, the experience of eating can make us recall and re-experience a feeling of belonging or connectedness.
Comfort foods are typically high in fat or sugar, energy-dense, and have relatively low nutrition value. These foods may trigger an emotional response or a temporary feeling of stress relief. Some foods release an increased level of dopamine, a type of neurotransmitter that plays a role in how humans feel pleasure.
We devour comfort foods because, in essence, they remind us of being loved.