Get in My Belly
When was the last time you jumped on the scales? I haven’t done it for a while, and for good reason. Since being told to stay home, I found myself drawn to the fridge like a moth to the moon. There was no real need to go to the fridge – I wasn’t hungry – but it would call to me, softly whispering my name and seducing me into eating something I didn’t need.
To make things worse, once I’d opened the fridge and grabbed those leftovers, it would say, “Hey, you want a beer with that?”. It was hopeless. Why was I giving the fridge more attention than my wife, the kids, even the dog? After much reflection, there was only one answer: comfort eating.
We know we need to eat to survive, but what’s probably not thought about as much are the psychological and social reasons for what we eat and how we eat it. How many times do we hear, “This is just like my Grandma used to make it,” on MasterChef? The associations and memories come flooding back, it’s emotional. Socially, food is a great way to gather and celebrate, and it has the ability to change our mood and overall well-being.
There’s nothing wrong with having an emotional connection with food – indeed we know eating food reduces arousal and irritability while giving us a sense of calm – but problems arise when we start to overeat and compare how much we are eating with how much we actually need. If we ask ourselves why we’re overeating, usually the truth comes out – perhaps to deal with stress, anxiety, boredom, unhappiness or loneliness. In a nutshell, comfort foods evoke pleasure and comfort, but too much can push us in an undesirable and even dangerous direction.
The government recently placed restrictions on the amount of alcohol any one person could buy at a time – two cartons of beer, 12 bottles of wine, 10 litres of cask wine and two litres of spirits. I can feel my liver twinge, but alcohol consumption did increase by over 70 per cent during April. A recent survey found 30 per cent of those drinking through lockdown were doing so to manage or deal with stress and anxiety.
What is it about alcohol that makes us want to pour a glass if we’re feeling a bit on edge? It comes down to a neurotransmitter called GABA. Alcohol’s effects on GABA are known to promote feelings of calm and, like Valium, it generally increases the activity of GABA that helps inhibit and reduce anxiety. Alcohol is also known to have a powerful affect on dopamine activity in the brain, another neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure that gives us feelings of euphoria. Ironically, the more we drink to get these good feelings, the more tolerance we develop, leaving us miserable and craving alcohol to feel better.
Back to comfort eating and dopamine features again… High calorie, high fat, high carb food is pleasurable to eat. It feels addictive because it tastes good, which is why we tend to crave and eat too much of it. Another neurotransmitter related to impulsive eating is serotonin. If you’ve ever reached for a bar of chocolate or a bowl of ice cream while feeling down, lethargic or irritable, you may be low in serotonin. Low levels are linked to depression, so in effect, we are eating chocolate to compensate for low levels of serotonin and elevate our mood. Antidepressant drugs increase serotonin activity and, like comfort foods, keep our mood up.
I’m no nutritionist, and certainly no neuroscientist, but the old adage ‘You are what you eat’ comes to mind. If you are eating too much bad food or drinking a lot of booze, then things can get out of balance and affect your mental health. That said, I’m off to weigh myself. Stand by…
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