Comfort eating and Stress

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Earlier this week I was sat in a restaurant and found myself trying to read (backwards) some words etched onto the glass of the window I was sat opposite. Adjacent to this window was a table with a menu on which was written in huge writing ‘DESSERTS’. Perhaps because of the way my brain had just been working, I found myself reading this word backwards also and discovered that it spelt STRESSED!! I smiled at this co-incidence, because there certainly is a close association between the two.

It has long been identified that there is a substantial link between stress and comfort eating. Indeed I devote a full chapter to this subject in my book, How to Stop Dieting and Start Living. However, it is good to follow more up-to-date research on the topic and last year scientific study brought further light to the subject.

Researcher Dr Rockwell Parker, a chemical ecologist, maintains that taste could be particularly affected by stress. It seems that hormones activated when a person feels anxious or worried have been discovered in taste cells, which identify sweet, savoury and bitter flavours. These findings could explain why many people dip their hand into the biscuit tin or raid the fridge when they come under pressure.
Dr. Parker believes that the hormones glucocorticoids act directly on taste receptor cells when a person is stressed, affecting how they respond to sugars and certain other foods.

Glucocorticoids affect the body by activating specialised receptors inside cells. Knowing stress can have major effects on metabolism and diet, experiments on mice showed their tongues contained receptors for them with the highest concentrations being found in those sensitive to sweet and savoury taste. The study showed stressed mice had 77 per cent more hormone receptors in the nucleus of taste cells than those that were more relaxed.

It suggests the perception of sweet food – which is known to be altered by stress – could be specifically affected by the secretion of glucocorticoids and subsequent activation of their receptors in the tongue.

Dr Parker, of Monell Chemical Senses Centre in the U.S., said: ‘Taste provides one of our initial evaluations of potential foods. If this sense can be directly affected by stress-related hormonal changes our food interaction will likewise be altered.’ He said that although stress is known to affect intake of salty foods the hormone receptors were not found in cells thought to be responsible for detecting this taste – or sour. One explanation is stress could influence salt taste processing in the brain.

The researchers say the implications of their findings extend beyond the oral taste system because taste receptors are found throughout the body.

Study co-author Dr Robert Margolskee, a molecular neurobiologist, said: ‘Taste receptors in the gut and pancreas might also be influenced by stress – potentially impacting metabolism of sugars and other nutrients and affecting appetite.’

Since about three-in-four people in the UK are now overweight or obese – with comfort eating identified as one of the causes- research like this, which helps us to recognise links between our physiology and emotions are very important. In Fit For Life Forever we believe in treating the root causes, not merely the symptoms. If (as it appears) there is this close correlation between stress, comfort eating and obesity then we need to take whatever steps we can to reduce stress factors in our lives.

Help from the Bible
The Bible, whilst not addressing comfort eating per se, does speak about stress, exhorting believers not to carry their burdens alone, but to ‘cast all our care upon Him (Christ) for He cares for us.’ (1 Peter 5:7) We are told also to ‘have no anxiety about anything, but in everything, with prayer and supplication and thanksgiving, to make our requests known unto God’ When we do this then the following verse comes into play: ‘And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:6-7)

Stress will come at us in all sorts of guises and in many ways it is all part and parcel of 21st century living. As believers we need to ensure that what we take on is in the plan and will of God, that we are not driven by other people’s expectations or our need to be needed. When we are doing His will we can be at peace knowing that even when we feel so weak, His strength is perfected in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9) and that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. (Philippians 4:13) These are life lessons, not learnt in a day, but progressively as we walk daily with Christ as our Lord and Saviour.

So could stress be the reason why you find yourself reaching for the desserts? You can find out more on this subject by reading the relevant chapter in my book.

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