The Perils of Getting Too Comfy with Your Comfort Food

Why we crave the foods we do, what our cravings mean and how to stave them off.

iStock_000002067611XSmallWinter is upon us, the time of year when we gather with friends and family to celebrate holidays, go ice skating and build snowmen. It’s also the time of year when we eat, eat and then eat some more. The time of year when we indulge in hot cocoa with marshmallows, potato pancakes, fruitcake and eggnog: all those high-sugar and high-carbohydrate laden treats commonly known as comfort food.  It may seem that when it’s cold out all you want to do is stay in with a plate of your favorite warm, gooey food. When you’re bundled in layers of sweaters and jackets, it’s easy to pack on the pounds without even noticing. Nearly 75% of weight gain occurs between Halloween and Valentine’s Day.  But the cold weather and holiday season aren’t the only reasons we eat more comfort food in the winter. When we’re stressed out or depressed (feelings that can be triggered by events such as family gatherings) we tend to crave foods with that are high-carb, high-fat and high-sugar. But why?

Most researchers tend support the theory that carbohydrates stimulate the production of serotonin in the brain. When we’re depressed, our serotonin levels drop, so when we eat carb heavy foods, we are really self-medicating to alter our moods. Though not all comfort food has the same effect on the brain. High-carb foods containing sugar have a greater impact on our serotonin levels, than do starchy carbs without sugar, such as bread or pasta.

Given such, it should come as no surprise to hear that chocolate is a favorite comfort food for many.  Chocolate is believed to be an especially potent mood elevator, not only because it has sugar, but because it also contains mildly addictive ingredients such as caffeine and anandamines as well.  In fact, researchers in Australia recently found evidence that suggests eating comfort food when depressed may have an effect on the brain similar to that of anti-depressants.

However, those researchers are far from suggesting you binge on the holiday party buffet to combat your feelings.  Indulging in small piece of apple pie or lemon bar is fine. It’s a festive time of year and it’s important to treat yourself on occasion. It’s necessary actually, because sugar, carbohydrates and even starches are all essential parts of our diet.  Starches provide our bodies with nutrients, vitamins and minerals that are an important part of maintaing our mood and energy level.

However, seeking solace in such foods because you’re feeling sad or stressed can result in weight gain, feelings of guilt, more depression or psychological dependency.  To avoid falling prey to these pitfalls, it is important understand the source of your cravings. When you feel like having a bag of chips at 11 a.m., ask yourself why. Are you bored? Sad? Angry? Try distracting yourself with another activity until you find the root of your feelings. Your craving will likely subside unless you truly are hungry.

In which case, eat well. Sugar cravings are the strongest when we’re hungry. Fight the urge to pop the first bon-bon you see in your mouth, and eat balanced meals made with protein, vegetables and fiber. Then have a small dessert afterwards to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Another way to combat comfort eating is to exercise. It seems like a no-brainer, but exercise stimulates another kind of mood elevator called endorphins. The more endorphins you have, the happier you are and the less likely you are to indulge your cravings.

So to have a happy and healthy holiday season, use discretion when choosing your sweet treats and remember to consider about why you want them. Feel good about yourself and what you eat!

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