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Why do we crave ‘comfort foods’ when we’re stressed?

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash
Stress is a contributing factor to comfort eating and one that affects so many people. For International Stress Awareness Week, here’s our nutrition expert Dr Kelly Johnston on the science behind comfort eating.

“Why do we crave ‘comfort foods’ when we’re feeling down or stressed?”



Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger) that gives us a sense of wellbeing, making us feel good, happier and calmer. Eating sweet or starchy carbohydrate foods such as bread, pasta and chocolate enables the brain to make serotonin.

So, when we are feeling challenged or emotionally distressed and serotonin levels are low, our brains motivate us to boost them by creating cravings for carbohydrates and, to some extent, fatty and rich foods – collectively what we tend to class as “comfort foods”. Protein-rich foods, on the other hand, don’t produce this effect.

Of course, eating comfort foods doesn’t remove the cause of the problem – the triggering event – but the emotions associated with it are temporarily diminished by the serotonin, so we feel calmer and believe we can cope better.

So what’s the message? “Comfort foods” are a short-term way to manage your uncomfortable feelings but they can lead to weight gain and further uncomfortable feelings in a vicious circle.

Discover more nutrition and mindfulness articles on the blog.