In the midst of midterm season, you may find yourself spending an inordinate amount daydreaming about mashed potatoes, pasta and chocolate. Don’t feel guilty about your carb fantasies though, because science is on your side—these preoccupations are your body’s way of making you feel better.
First things first: why do you crave comfort food around midterm season or when you’ve had a bad day? Biology has a simple answer to this mystery. When we are stressed, our bodies produce a cocktail of hormones. The ones we care about here are glucocorticoids. According to a study conducted by UCSF, this hormone triggers us to behave in ways that will result in pleasure and reward in order to lessen the stress response. And as we all know, eating a heaping plate of homemade lasagna causes a unique sense of bliss. When our bodies need a way to stop the stress-induced hormonal madness, we look to these kinds of high-calorie foods. So pairing your finance midterm cramming with a bagel and shmear is really just biology at play.
The high-calorie nature of carbs explains why we feel less stressed, but not only do they alleviate stress, they actively make us feel better. So why do we feel happier when we gorge on carbs? Again, biology gives us insight into this phenomenon.
Dr. Emily Deans explains that tryptophan is an amino acid that is in most foods but is especially present in carbohydrates and dairy products (like chocolate, cheese and flour). This useful molecule is converted into serotonin, which is a vital neurotransmitter that is best known for mood and appetite regulation. High levels of serotonin make us feel happy and well-fed. So since carbohydrates tend to contain relatively high levels of tryptophan, which is essential for producing serotonin, which in turn makes us feel happy—eating carbs brings us happiness! There are even some psychologists who recommend patients with depression boost their diets with tryptophan-rich foods to increase serotonin production.
There are obvious downsides to excessively stress-eating carbs, namely weight gain. But if you’re feeling really frazzled one day, don’t worry too much about pre-gaming your spaghetti-with-a-side-of-mashed-potatoes dinner with breadsticks. And when your friends judge you for inhaling a pint of Chocolate Therapy Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in one sitting, go ahead and just blame science.