I’ve heard it said that some people lose their appetite during stressful times. These people are not my relatives. Indeed, in our Ukrainian family tradition, we love food, and we eat when we’re happy, we eat when we’re upset, and we eat during all possible emotions in between.
So amid the stressful reality of the COVID-19 virus pandemic, stress eating in our family can mean only one thing: carbohydrate cravings. .
No cravings for kale. Or carrots. Or celery sticks. As California dietitian Evelyn Tribole, author of Intuitive Eating, explains:
“You don’t want to kill for a piece of broccoli, but you’d kill for a piece of bread.”
According to the World Health Organization, fear, anxiety and uncertainty about the COVID-19 virus itself have been co-occurring with imposed public health requirements like social distancing, along with worry over a scary economic future. This is a recipe for stress eating.
Back in 2012, I flew home to the West Coast on the weekend following my mother’s funeral, feeling like I’d been hit by a very large bus. I experienced surprising and relentless carb cravings all that week. I wanted (needed!) only hot cross buns, Island Farms coffee truffle ice cream, and mashed potatoes (with butter).
I come from a long line of carb cravers. And as we acknowledged in Mom’s obituary:
“Somewhere in heaven today is the aroma of Mom’s famous home-baked Chelsea buns and an apple pie or two.”
Ellen Kanner is an award-winning food writer and author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner. Her beautiful Culinate essay called Brisket in Bereavement helps to explain why women all over the world have gathered for centuries in churches, in mosques, in synagogues, in temples and in each others’ kitchens to cook for others after a tragedy besets their community.
But grief is no time for new recipes or foodie trends, Ellen reminds us. It is a time for the familiar, for the traditional, for what is easy to prepare and easy to digest.
After my own mother’s funeral, that meant homemade potato-and-cheddar-stuffed perogies (varenyky) with buttery sautéed onions and bacon, topped with mountains of sour cream. Yes, real sour cream, not that low-fat crap I’ve been buying ever since I survived a heart attack, the kind my mother would have sneered at.
Author and scientist Dr. Judith Wurtman and her husband, MIT professor of neuroscience Dr. Richard Wurtman, have long researched carbohydrates and their link to how we feel. As she explains:
“Carb craving is part of daily life. It’s a real neurochemical phenomenon.“
In the Wurtmans’ studies on the link between carbs and depression, they suggested that carbohydrate craving is related to decreases in the body’s feel-good hormone serotonin, decreases which are marked by a decline in mood and concentration.(1)
And carbohydrates do seem to help carb cravers feel better within about 20 minutes, according to the Wurtmans. When we eat carbs, they explain, our bodies create more serotonin. Reaching for carbs may simply be an unconscious attempt to lift a depressed mood.
Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago even use the term self-medicating to describe carb cravers:(2)
“Carb cravers reliably chose to self-administer high carbohydrates over protein-rich balanced nutrients when asked to choose the snack that made them feel better. As predicted, the carbohydrate beverage engendered a significantly greater antidepressant effect than did the protein-rich beverage, and was unrelated to hunger.”
But all carbs are not created equal.
The type of carbohydrate we crave seems to be based upon the food’s glycemic index, or how high it causes blood sugar levels to peak after consumption. The higher-glycemic index carbs (like sugar) are said to have a greater effect on serotonin than lower-glycemic index carbs (like oatmeal).
When we’re coping with severe stress, as we have all been for the past months, simple carbohydrates provide a fairly rapid source of fuel to the body by raising these blood sugar levels. And traumatic precipitating factors – like grief, divorce, family crisis or this unprecedented COVID-19 global pandemic) – can set off a cascade of carb cravings.
The ironic problem with a simple carb overload is that what may make us feel temporarily better can set off a physiological chain reaction that wreaks havoc on the body. It taxes the adrenal glands, suppresses the immune system for hours after intake, and generally leaves a person feeling sluggish and off-kilter. And then there’s the sugar crash.
Stress eating like this is often a temporary craving misfire set off by a trigger event; in fact, some critics of the Wurtmans’ findings prefer to blame the event itself – not the drop in serotonin levels – for our cravings.
But what if the stressors continue over a long time, like self-isolation during the pandemic?
Here are some wise tips from Dr. Cortney Warren on curbing these cravings during a pandemic or any crisis, including some questions to ask ourselves:
1. Become more aware of your feelings, and let yourself feel them away from food. (How are your feelings affecting you and your experience of life right now?)
2. Recognize your triggers for emotionally-based eating. (What circumstances make it hardest for you to control your unwanted eating behaviors?)
3. Make conscious choices about your eating, avoiding triggers when possible. (Is this something I am going to regret eating, or do I actively choose to eat this?)
4. Get social support while avoiding exposure to triggering material. (Who can I call today that will help me stay emotionally grounded? How can I help others in my life get through this?)
5. Start fresh, each moment of each day. (Without self-deprecating judgement, re-establish a pattern of eating – acknowledging the difficult emotions you’re feeling now as well as encouraging deliberate eating behavior that feels healthy).
And yet, every once in a while, when the circumstances warrant, we could still dig up one of our mother’s favourite recipes and whip up some nice comforting carbs instead.
I think for tonight, it might just be Mom’s creamy rice pudding with her hot maple sauce.
Please. Stay safe. . .
An excerpt from this post was originally published here shortly after my mother’s death on February 21, 2012)
© 2020 Carolyn Thomas www.myheartsisters.org
1. Wurtman R.J., Wurtman J.J. “Brain Serotonin, Carbohydrate-Craving, Obesity and Depression.” In: Filippini G.A., Costa C.V.L., Bertazzo A. (eds) “Recent Advances in Tryptophan Research. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology”, vol 398. Springer, Boston, MA
2. J. Corsica and B.J. Spring, “Carbohydrate craving: a double-blind, placebo-controlled test of the self-medication hypothesis.” Eating Behaviors vol. 9,4 (2008): 447-54.
Q: Do you have a favourite comfort-food carb?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about how heart patients manage health crises in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease. You can ask for it at your favourite local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).
– More Heart Sisters articles about COVID-19 and heart patients