Tina Fey made a show of eating her feelings on Thursday evening upon her return to Weekend Update: Summer Edition. Fey, a proud member of the University of Virginia’s class of 1992, expressed her rage and anxiety about Donald Trump’s reaction to the events in Charlottesville, calling viewers to take action — not by protesting or punching Nazis, but by stress-eating sheet cake.
… I would urge people this Saturday, instead of participating in these screaming matches and potential violence, find a local business that you support, maybe a Jewish-run bakery, or an African-American-run bakery. Order a cake with the American flag on it like this one, and just eat it, Colin.
While the internet is divided over whether Fey was justifying tone-deaf complacency or was simply being her satirical self, one thing is clear: she believes that stuffing your face with junk can help relieve some of the stress of being an American in 2017.
Unfortunately for Fey, most scientists would agree that doing so will only make matters worse.
A 2012 Harvard Mental Health letter explained that stress eating junk happens for several broad reasons: Chronic stress increases the levels of an appetite-increasing hormone called cortisol, and being emotionally or physically stressed is also linked to a preference for oily, fatty, and sugary foods. Fey, an American in 2017 whose first impulse when anxious is to go for cake, ticks all the boxes of the stress eater checklist.
From an evolutionary perspective, what Fey is doing is preparing for times of hardship and scarcity. What caused our ancient ancestors the most physical and mental stress was, fortunately for them, probably not racist political ideology but a dearth of food. Individuals who responded to the threat of scarcity by stuffing their faces with as much calorie-dense food as possible were those who were most likely to survive. This natural selection led this response — typified by the body pumping out appetite-increasing hormones and boosting preference for fats and oils — to become more common in human populations.
An article on stress and eating behaviors in Minerva Endocrinologica explained in 2014 that, during “human evolution, food was scarce and life-threatening stressors frequent; and the elevated [glucocorticoid] level and depressed insulin levels, except when feeding, therefore served adaptive purposes.” (Glucocorticoids are a family of appetite-boosting hormones, including corticosterone and the aforementioned cortisol, that are released when we’re stressed.)
But food is much more plentiful now, and we’re rarely in situations where we need to store calories for future famines, so stress eating doesn’t have quite the same effect. The unhealthy, carb-filled, oily, and sweet food we like to eat when we’re stressed simply makes us feel bad. There’s no surprise there: Sugary and high-carb junk foods, like cake, cause blood sugar to suddenly spike and then crash, which makes people feel sluggish and lethargic.
Though the consequences of stress eating are obvious, it’s also clear that fighting those urges is an uphill battle with biology, especially during times of high instability, as in the Untied States today. There’s a lot more of the Trump presidency ahead, so Fey might want to lay off the sheet cake — and perhaps focus on her more active ideas for protesting against his inexcusable leadership, as she did when she advocated for screaming into the cake as well as eating it.
“Yell it at the cake,” she said in the clip, mid-screed, finally stating something that she, her critics, and psychologists could likely all agree on: If you’re going to react to Trump by giving in to your body’s stress response, make it one that everyone around you can hear, too.