As anxiety over the COVID-19 pandemic continues, those under social-distancing measures are trying to find ways to cope. In some cases, that may mean craving certain foods, but especially cake, pasta, bread, and other so-called "carbs."
But why are humans so drawn to eat these foods in times of crises?
Three nutrition experts explain the psychological and physiological reasons we might turn to mac and cheese when everything else seems to be going awry.
Humans are hard-wired to seek comfort and relief in moments of need. Biologically, this is called homeostasis, which means maintaining a steady state of balance.
“Anything that challenges our state of balance, or any situation of lack, is deemed a stress. This could be hunger, an uncomfortable position, feeling cold, or even wanting to understand something better,” Eva Selhub, former Instructor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, tells Inverse.
This feeling triggers an automatic reaction to leave or alleviate the uncomfortable situation, like putting on something warm if you are cold, for example, or eating a giant bowl of pasta bolognese when you are feeling insecure.
By addressing the problem, the brain's reward centers are stimulated along with the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which play a role in reward. At the same time, the stress hormone cortisol goes down. Solving a discomfort, then, gives you a sense of euphoria and ease.
“Think of these actions as coping habits,” Selhub says. Carbohydrates are naturally suited to being a crutch in such times — their nutritional content means that they are extremely good at activating the same dopamine reward centers in the brain as other coping habits.
“Carbohydrates especially lead to the increase of serotonin levels, which give us the sense of feeling better,” Selhub says.
Carbohydrates in particular provide a sense of relief because of their chemical composition.
Once they are ingested, carbohydrates trigger an increase of insulin in the blood. Insulin boosts levels of the protein tryptophan in the brain, and this protein signals for an increase in serotonin, the so called "happiness hormone."
“There is benefit to eating carbohydrates in times of ongoing stress,” Nancy Cohen, an expert in Community Nutrition at University of Massachusetts, Amherst tells Inverse.
“The brain then uses tryptophan to synthesize the neurotransmitter serotonin, which regulates mood, among other actions. So we can actually feel good after eating carbs.”
Carbohydrates are also a dietary source of glucose, which is the fuel our brains run on — we need them for basic cognitive functions.
Carbs can inspire better decision making, according to a 2017 study. The study found that breakfasts with a high-carbohydrate and protein ratio increased social punishment behavior as an answer to norm violations — basically, you were more likely to follow social rules when you'd eaten carbs for breakfast. Carbs may also play a role in strengthening memory. A 2009 study, for example, found that diets low in carbohydrates may impede cognitive functions and negatively affect memory.
Chemistry isn't all that is at play here — our evolution also gears us towards choosing a bagel over fruit when we are stressed out. Essentially, it comes down to our fight-or-flight response.
In the earlier days of humanity, we depended on our ability to run away from or attack threats to survive.
“In the short term, we needed energy to do that and the fastest way to get energy through the body is through carbs,” Selhub says.
“This is why the body is designed to release endorphins and neurotransmitters upon the ingestion of carbs to let us know we are doing the right thing and to keep going until we are safe.”
Carbohydrates are like small energy bombs that fuel the batteries of many mammals, Omer Gokcumen, associate professor of Biological Sciences at University at Buffalo, tells Inverse. He researches how some animals rapidly evolved mechanisms to be better carb-consuming machines than others.
Because the brain doesn't recognize the difference between being chased by a lion or facing down coronavirus, Selhub explains, both are treated as equal threats to our livelihood. And so carb-craving ensues.
“The craving is both mental and physiological, and in the moment, should we need the energy to move, carbs are a good idea,” Selhub says.
Now, not everyone craves pizza in their time of need. In times of short-term stress, the brain also triggers the release of adrenaline, which suppresses appetite. But over the long term, ongoing stress makes our bodies release the hormone cortisol, which increases appetite for foods high in carbohydrates or fats, according to Cohen.
So in a crisis like this one, when you are faced with stress that doesn't have an obvious end point, and you cannot solve the problem, don't feel too terrible when you reach for yet another box of Kraft pasta. You aren't alone — it is the human thing to do.
Aside from the biology, there may be psychological reasons why we turn to carbs and baking in crises.
For example, looking forward to something delicious that you like to eat is in itself something that can keep you positive, Evelyn Tribole, a nutritional counselor, tells Inverse.
Aside from that, there are four more psychological reasons underlying why we crave carbs, she says:
- Smell: "When you smell food cooking, whether it's the aroma of fresh baked bread, or brownies, or a spaghetti sauce, it grounds you in the present moment,” Tribole says. “We only can experience our senses in the here and now. It's not the future or past. And there's something about that that feels so alive. There's people alive in this home, so it's comforting and it's relaxing.”
- Connection: “Food is also a source of connection,” Tribole says. “If there's been fond memories around breaking brownies with mom growing up, if that was a pleasant memory, it's understandable that these things would be coming to us right now. How wonderful that we have this as a source of comfort.”
- Planning ahead: “Especially for those who do like to cook or bake, you've got food around for some period of time,” Tribole says. In that situation, you can avoid an extra stressor — making a choice about what food you’re going to have that day.
- Fear of scarcity: “There's something also very primal about going into a grocery store and seeing the shelves emptied of basic foods,” Tribole says. “It also stirs something up in us as well, to have abundance as opposed to scarcity.”
Although we should be kind to ourselves, allowing ourselves some comfort during hard times, it is important to keep a balance.
No shame, eat as much as you fancy, but keep an eye out for how what you’re eating is actually making you feel, Selhub says.
“The problem is that most people aren't actually running but rather sitting and worrying. So we actually don't need the carbs, and, more so, when the levels of happy chemicals drop, we will feel worse,” she says.
“We actually end up feeling worse, which stimulates the stress response more, worsens the mood as the brain feels fatigued and inflamed and our bodies ache, and leads to more seeking of relief,” she says.
Take care not to binge on any one food, Selhub says, because it could turn a coping mechanism into an unhealthy cycle.
The relationships between food, health, and mood are very complex, Cohen says.
“When we eat food, we don’t usually eat just one nutrient at a time, unless you’re swallowing pure sugar or guzzling cooking oil," she says.
Given that, it is best to follow a balanced diet as much as possible, with plenty of fruits and vegetables; whole grains such as whole wheat breads, brown rice and oats; nuts and seeds; and protein foods such as beans and tofu, seafood, eggs, lean meats and poultry, and dairy, Cohen says.
“Comfort foods and treats in moderation can be part of the menu, especially in these stressful times,” she says.
Another way to help maintain good healthy eating habits is to practice mindfulness, especially when it comes to nurturing yourself, Selhub says.
“Eat mindfully and make a loving ritual out of it, rather than have it be mindless.”
So enjoy your pasta, but try to really enjoy it.