The comfort food we often indulge in during stress unknowingly affects our mental health and may not really be comforting

Work from home, online schooling, layoffs, lockdown and salary cuts have become the new normal since covid hit us. These coupled with the alarming news reports about the pandemic and looming uncertainty are causing stress among people. And the stress is leading many to increasingly turn towards comfort food. With stress levels through the roof, this reaction is natural. But increased indulgence in comfort food greatly affects our mental health. Stating a Harvard Review of Psychiatry study, The New York Times reported in May ‘21 that a growing body of literature points towards a relationship between the gut microbiome and one’s mental well-being. Gut bacteria play a crucial role in many psychiatric problems such as depression.

Eating for Comfort

One usually resorts to comfort eating to feel happy during tough times, than to satiate hunger. And that is what has been happening since the pandemic. Missing their favourite food stuck at homes during the lockdown, some began trying their hand at their grandmother’s recipes. While others went a step ahead and learnt to make new recipes in the safety of their homes. Sourdough, healthy banana bread and whipped cream for instance were among the top searched recipes during the lockdown as per Google’s Year in Search 2020. 

A study carried out by Melissa J Chee and her team in Canada in December 2020, reported that people indulged in unhealthy snacking during the lockdown. The snacking helped them cope with changes in employment such as getting laid off and working for lesser hours. The study was titled ‘Piece of Cake: Coping with COVID-19’. The comfort people seek in food during stressful times, more often than not turns out to be high in carbohydrates and sugar. 

The Food-Mood Link

In her book ‘The Food-Mood Connection’, author Uma Naidoo throws light on how the food we eat for comfort puts us on the path to bigger problems. Although the food seems to fix the mood, for the time being, it actually leads to the growth of bad bacteria in the gut causing negative health problems. Uma, a nutrition specialist, board-certified psychiatrist, and a professionally trained chef uses her research in her 2020 published book, as a basis to state the many ways food contributes to our mental health. Gut bacteria she says affects the brain chemicals, thus a happy gut leads to a happy mood. A happy mood in turn gives rise to happier people with healthy lives.

Happy Food

To give rise to good bacteria in the gut, Naidoo recommends eating probiotic fermented foods such as live yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso. Prebiotics such as bananas, berries, oats, garlic and beans along with regular oily fish and good fats are also good. She points that instead of depending fully on high carbs and sugar-containing foods when feeling down, it is advisable to choose the middle ground and approach food. 

Speaking to the New York Times, Dr. Felica Jacka too suggests staying away from fast food. She says, “Mental health is complex. Eating a salad is not going to cure depression. But there’s a lot you can do to lift your mood and improve your mental health, and it can be as simple as increasing your intake of plants and healthy foods.” Dr. Jacka is the director of the Food & Mood Centre at Deakin University in Australia and the president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research.

Although difficult, it is important to take control of what we eat during times of stress. Only by doing so can we prioritize our mental health.

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