Functional Medicine Associates on How Stress Alters The Foods We Choose

Functional Medicine: Stress Management

What if you were told that some of your food preferences were not under your conscious control but rather were an evolutionary response to stress in the environment, a response to potential hard times like famine or winter?

Our natural wisdom would say that our tastes and preferences for foods have evolved over millennia to ensure that we choose lean proteins, good fats and fruits and vegetables to arm us with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to help and protect while in stressful times. When we are stressed of course, we do the complete opposite. We choose high saturated fat, high sugar and high salt foods. Following a stressful meeting you are unlikely to hear your colleague say: “Let’s go and have some carrots “

This human trait was discussed in my favourite medical journal “Medical Hypothesis” by two Stanford scientists in 2008 in an aptly named paper “Unhappy Meal”. It was proposed that our taste preferences have evolved to serve us a secondary function – that of Xenohormesis.

In humans, it is this subconscious detection of environmental stress that may signal to us to calorie hoard, so we can plan ahead for the hard times ahead, like the winter. Early detection of this impending resource scarcity gave an advantage to those who detected it earliest.

Modern life stresses us much more than we are designed for and it is the consistent stressors and the interpretation of those stressors that our brains get confused with. We may well be interpreting stressors from the environment (like work stressors) as a Xenohormetic message to hoard calories. This leads us to high fat, high sugar and high salt foods, an advantage in the past but not now in a society of plenty where eating enough calories to survive the winter is no longer needed.

All of our personal experiences tell us this. I have experienced many difficult patient consults that have left me reaching for coffee and cake. I have a couple of patients that have a proportional relationship with comfort food and stress. In many ways, these are the people who, in times gone by, would have likely lived longer. Now it’s just a mismatch of genes and environment.

So, as we have discussed, not all of our food choices are part of our conscious control. Are you a comfort eater? What are the stressors in your life causing this behaviour? The answer to improving our food choices, reducing calorie intake and controlling weight may lie in having an awareness of the stressors in our lives.

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