Remember when we used to say we were “stressed” when it was tough to find a parking spot at the mall? Ha! With our very existence threatened by a pandemic, not to mention all of the economic issues that come with a global health crisis, these wild times have upgraded our very notion of being “anxious” to a whole new level. That’s why comfort food is more important now than it’s ever been, unleashing a trend of quarantine baking and provoking eye rolls at the thought of dieting.
So, what’s everyone nibbling on to get through the stress? The List polled more than 18,000 people internationally, and the clear winner was chocolate, with one-third of respondents calling this treat their “go-to” comfort food. And there’s actually a scientific reason why chocolate might make you feel better when you’re frazzled or feeling down. “The experience of eating chocolate results in feel-good neurotransmitters (mainly dopamine) being released in particular brain regions,” professor of psychology and neuroscience Amy Jo Stavnezer told Psychology Today. Plus, the more you eat chocolate when you need comfort, the more you learn that chocolate will solve your problems. “If you eat chocolate and enjoy it, then every time you eat it you strengthen your dopamine response, and the behavioral pattern necessary to get that feeling back again,” Stavnezer added.
People are flipping for pizza during the pandemic
Nearly a quarter of survey respondents said they crave a hot, cheesy slice of pizza when they need a little comfort. A recent OnePoll survey, meanwhile, found that 55 percent of people say they have been ordering more pizza than they did pre-pandemic because it’s their childhood comfort food (per New York Post).
So why this passion for pies? Just as there’s a scientific reason why stress sends us scurrying for chocolate, our passion for pizza also has clear psychological roots. “I’m fascinated by the fact that people will eat almost any kind of pizza — not necessarily the ‘best’ pizza — and part of that is the fact that it is the uber selection of ingredients that have fat, sugar and salt, that pleases the amygdala [a set of neurons in the brain] and makes the brain very happy,” explained Gail Vance Civille, founder and president of Sensory Spectrum, a consulting firm that works with pizza brands (per CNN). “It delivers on the food matrix that people tend to crave and want, and feeds the brain, which says ‘this is just wonderful.'”
When we want to scream, we scream for ice cream
Tied with pizza for the number two spot of most desired comfort foods is ice cream, which 22 percent of survey respondents crave when they are stressed. In fact, ice cream rose to popularity in the United States after the Great Depression in the 1930s, and hit its heyday after World War II, according to Eater.
When you look at what’s in ice cream, you’ll find similarities between this frosty treat and the other popular comfort foods, chocolate and pizza, all combined in one yummy pint. Ice cream marries the rich sweetness of chocolate with the addictive fat that’s in pizza, points out clinical psychologist Ashley Gearhardt, a professor and researcher at the University of Michigan’s FAST (Food Addiction Science and Treatment) Lab. “Our brains are really set up to find highly caloric things rewarding,” Gearhardt told HuffPost. “Ice cream has two of the ingredients that we’re engineered to have a big reward response to: fat and sugar.” Perhaps that’s why you always see characters in movies binging on Ben & Jerry’s when they’re heartbroken. These characters are usually women and not men, Gearhardt notes. “If you’re not societally allowed to go to the bar and pour a whiskey and drink the pain away, then ice cream is the gendered-appropriate alternative,” she explained.
When the chips are down, we binge on chips
Plenty of people crave chips when they’re stressed, with 17 percent of survey respondents naming this greasy indulgence as their favorite comfort food. Certainly, crunching and munching your way through a bag of Lays can feel pretty satisfying when life is anything but. But, as EatThis notes, you could be feeding an increased stress response when you turn to chips for comfort, because stress itself already elevates your blood pressure, and high-sodium food is adding fuel to that fire.
In fact, the outlet also found fault with the other popular comfort food options. The sugar in chocolate and ice cream trigger your brain to secrete more of the stress hormone, cortisol, for example. Dark chocolate, strawberries, unsalted almonds, and pumpkin seeds were listed as healthy alternatives. Of course, there’s probably a reason why these foods aren’t topping anyone’s list of favorite comfort foods! However, the healthiest way to handle stress is to stop using food as a coping method altogether, according to Amanda Baten, a nutritional psychologist who likened stress eating to over-consumption of alcohol and other unhealthy pursuits. “It’s a distraction strategy in the same way that people might use alcohol or drugs or sex or TV as ways to create a buffer between themselves and whatever difficult feelings they might be experiencing,” Baten said in an interview with Time.
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