“Fried chicken solves most problems”. Or at least that is what the massive fast food chain KFC thinks. It is printed on their wings bucket, which you might not want to toss out. As KFC might not be that wrong after all.
Just because today was one of those stressful days. Your boss was shouting at you for no reason. You were buried in so much paperwork that you could barely see your colleague. You spent forty minutes crammed cheek to jowl with strangers on the tube, pushing you so fiercely from side to side that you almost forgot to „mind the gap between the train and the platform“.
And when stress spreads in your body like ink on paper, the mouth-watering chicken wings look more appealing than ever. But don’t be fooled you need junk food. You are just emotionally overwhelmed and comfort eating seems the only way out of your problems.
So, why do we always end up in this vicious cycle, you might ask?
According to Dr Helge Gillmeister, a cognitive neuroscientist and a senior lecturer at the University of Essex, stress, and negative emotions are taxing on the system, causing us to seek high-calorie foods to make up for the energy loss.
„Within a few hundred milliseconds of seeing junk food your brain will have identified it as high energy, and it will have also decided a potential action– to approach or avoid this food,” she says. “When we are low on energy, we will therefore be far more motivated to go for junk food than for a nice salad. “
For Dr Gillmeister, who is also researching how body images affect our eating habits, comfort eating is just a temporary solution to the problems.
She says: „There is an immediate reward – you feel good when you eat something tasty. But when that response has died down, you are left with the implications of your decision – guilt, because you had wanted to make healthier choices, and low mood, because you feel like you have failed by giving in to the temptation. “
And the reason you have failed is in your reward system, the neurone structure activated when exposed to rewarding stimuli like drugs. Every time you consume high-calorie food, the brain’s reward system will be triggered, releasing dopamine – the hormone of happiness. This means that whenever you want to burst the stress bubble, your brain will associate food with happiness and you will crave the tasty high-calorie food again.
When this happens „if we want to make healthy choices, we would then have to consciously override this quick and automatic decision made by our brain, which again takes effort,“ says Dr Gillmeister.
The cognitive neuroscientist attributes this process of junk food comfort eating to evolution. She thinks it is likely we are programmed to find sweet and fatty foods more rewarding than the less-calorie just because food was scarcer in the past.
Nowadays “it really doesn’t help that junk food is far more convenient and often cheaper than any other choice,“ says Dr Gillmester. “When you feel a bit run down and low on resources, the thought of cooking something might not appeal as much, and this then backs up your brain’s automatic decision to go for the easily available high energy food.”
But before you binge eat on the fatty takeaway you have just ordered, ask yourself: „Am I really hungry? “ Your craving for food might simply be a reaction to your low emotional state. As Dr Gillmeister explains, „hunger is physiological, but appetite for food can easily be mistaken for hunger“.
To make matters worse, she says, some people are „emotional overeaters“, which means they show a greater responsiveness to food when they are depressed or anxious, while others are the opposite – „emotional undereaters“, who avoid eating when stress takes over.
„I’m not sure we know exactly why some people are like this and others are the opposite, but it is likely a combination of genetic factors and experiences in critical periods in early childhood when you and your caregiver somehow decided when you should eat and when you should stop,“ adds Dr Gillmeister.
The cognitive neuroscientist says she falls under the second category. However, Dr Gillmeister is not afraid to admit she sometimes finds herself caught up in the vicious cycle of comfort eating like plenty of us do: „When I’m only moderately stressed and need the energy, I will reach for a convenient buzz too and often barely notice how much I’ve had because I’m thinking about work.“
But her advice is „not to have any junk food in the house to reduce the temptation and eat more mindfully rather than while doing other things“. So, next time you are craving chicken wings…. don’t eat. Breathe. Because sometimes you are not hungry. You are just stressed.