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You can’t explain it, but you know that occasionally you must have that bowl of ice cream, extra-large pizza, chocolate bonbons, bowl of mashed potatoes or half-pound of bacon and eggs fried in butter. Aside from these events, you generally do a good job of managing your diet and if only you could curb your cravings, you’d be able to take off that extra layer of weight. The problem is that eating these foods feels so good that you can’t imagine giving them up.
That craving for foods heavy in sugar and fats may harken back to prehistoric times, when human beings were exposed to short-term physical threats that evoked a strong stress-response. The body was flooded with cortisol to help manage the stress, and signals were sent to the brain ordering up emergency food supplies. This response to flight or fight situations helped people to survive when marauding mastodons or an unruly tribe threatened their lives. The heightened hormone levels and alert signals stay in your body for up to twenty-four hours after a stress event.
Fortunately, you are not typically faced with such life or death stressful situations, and you have ready access to food whenever you want it. Unfortunately, there is another crucial way that your life differs from your prehistoric ancestors. That is the sustained stress from navigating modern life. You may face many small stresses each day, such as avoiding a swerving car on the way to work, an overbearing boss, rude customers, error-prone co-workers, overloaded transit systems and more. Each of these stimulates the stress-response and elevates cortisol and other hormones. Since they occur daily, the twenty-four hour period never expires and the response mode remains in effect.
When your body stores fat, it signals to the brain that the body has dealt with the urgency of the situation by preparing for the future and the brain signals for all systems to relax. This explains why you feel so good after eating comfort foods. The sugar from the donuts is rapidly converted to fat stores, your body relaxes from its stressed state and you feel rewarded for having consumed the food. The more frequent these craving events, the more likely you will struggle to maintain a healthy weight, aside from increasing the risk of other health issues that result from overeating sugar and gaining too much weight.
The good news is that your body doesn’t know the difference between comfort foods and other healthier foods. The next time you are tempted to reach for that pint of rocky road ice cream purely as a source of comfort, grab a few raw walnuts or almonds and eat them instead. Your body will reward you with the same relaxing and satisfied response and you’ll gain essential nutrients and beneficial fatty acids at the same time. You will manage the stress-response and avoid the addition of unwanted pounds at the same time.
Meanwhile, now that you know that the food cravings are your body’s attempt to manage stress, you can try other techniques that are effective at reducing stress and keeping the body balanced. Various forms of exercise are great ways to reduce stress. This could be as simple as taking a walk or performing some Pilates routines. Relaxation through sleep, meditation and immersing yourself in nature are also good ways to relieve stress. Train yourself to convert the ice cream craving for a craving to put on your walking shoes and step out for greater comfort.