In a perfect world, all of us would eat for one reason and one reason alone: because we are hungry. However, anyone who has ever spent a boring day in front of the TV … or has reached into the freezer for the ice cream when a relationship has gone sour … or has stayed up late into the night working on a stressful project … will know firsthand that this is not the case.
Our feelings and emotions at any particular time have a very real effect on our choices of when and what to eat. Moreover, while external factors have a significant effect on how we are feeling—the status of our relationship or the demands of our job, for example —our emotions should be considered an internal factor behind our weight for some excellent reasons. For one, the way we process our experience into emotion is unique to each of us. We may not always feel as if we are in complete control of how situations or events impact our emotional state. However, the fact remains that this is an internal process.
Secondly, psychological conditions—like depression and anxiety—can hold sway over our emotions. Those who experience these know that they can influence many of the choices made and the actions taken on a day-to-day basis. Moreover, many of these choices and actions, in turn, have an effect on weight.
Depression, of course, is only one example of an emotional condition linked to our weight. Stress, boredom, or a simple case of the blues may be all it takes for some of us to make less-than-healthy choices in what we eat and how much activity we get. A lonely evening with nothing to do is the trigger to search the fridge for some of us. For others, anxiety in the face of an important deadline can knock us out of our gym routine. Furthermore, many can attest that the end of a relationship may be all it takes to make us reach for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.
The way our emotional state influences our food choices is exciting. The effects of indulging in comfort foods do not live only in our stomachs; they live in our heads as well. Science even tells us that there’s a good reason why we call some tasty and often high-calorie treats “comfort food:” What we eat can often take our minds off our troubles and stressors, at least temporarily.
This is what researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine found when investigating how comfort foods work. Specifically, they saw that engaging in what they called “palatable snacking”—think gobbling down a stack of Oreos with a glass of chocolate milk—may dampen the nervous system’s response to stress. Their conclusion? “Stress tends to alter the pattern of food consumption, and promotes craving of [calorie]-dense comfort foods.”
In other words—let’s face it—many of us live with an internal struggle between our dietary id and ego. Sometimes when our lives and stress levels leave us feeling “tapped out,” we seek to feed the id. To replenish our energy and appetite, we relinquish control and look away from the downside of thoughtless eating. Our id is happy, but we eventually wake up to our ego—and the scales. Our dietary id can cunningly convince us we need “comfort food,” while in actuality, it should be called “discomfort food”—because trying to squeeze a size 12 body into size 8 jeans is anything but comfortable!