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The ultimate guide to when and why you eat terribly

17 May, 2017
Man holding pizza

Only three things in life are truly guaranteed: death, taxes, and the occasional overwhelming desire to get as much sugar and fat into your mouth as humanly possible.

It only stands to reason – sugar and fat have only become readily available and affordable in the last fifty years, whereas we had to fight, hunt and search for these substances during the last 100,000 years.

But you might have noticed by now that, despite evolutionary pressures and the omni-presence of junk foods, there will be times when the siren-song of sugar sweetness and savoury saturated fats becomes too strong to bear.

Here’s the when and why you eat badly, and what you can do to avoid it.

Why do I eat badly when I’m stressed?

Stress can be brought out by many things. Maybe it’s been a long, demanding day at the office. Maybe you stubbed your toe on the couch for the third time in one day. Maybe your darling, cherubim newborn has kept you awake for the last two weeks.

Whatever it is that’s causing you stress, the reaction is the same – at first, your brain releases corticotropin, and if the stress continues, it releases cortisol.

This is because corticotropin is an appetite suppressant, which is exactly what you want when you need your attention completely focused on the dangers at hand (eg an angry goose is bearing down on you).

Cortisol, on the other hand, is something that will increase feelings of hunger and may influence your levels of motivation. It’s a powerful combination, compelling you to eat and to eat through any means necessary.

Check out this article from Harvard Health for a more detailed explanation.

How do I stop myself from stress eating?

For everyone it’s different – however, mindfulness may work, as might ensuring you organise readily available healthy-binge eating foods (like grapes or veges with natural dips).


Why do I eat badly when I’m hungover?

Hangover cures around the world, from the traditional English breakfast to South Korea’s ‘hangover stew’, share two features: they’re normally high in fat and salt.

However, our reasons for wanting these two substances are very different.

Why do we want fat when we’re hungover?

When you consume alcohol or fat, your brain produces the neurotransmitter Galanin, which in turn increases your appetite for alcohol and fats.

Seems like the cycle of hell, doesn’t it?

Well, not so much where fat alone is concerned. Galanin produced by fat consumption has a natural counteractive signal which ends the desire. Alcohol, on the other hand, subverts this process, boosting alcohol intake but not food intake.

Here’s how the situation unfolds:

You go out drinking.

Your brain produces galanin, increasing your appetite for alcohol.

You drink more.

Eventually, you go home and sleep it off.

You wake up and galanin demands fat.

Bleary-eyed stumbling to your fridge/nearest café.

Sausages, egg and bacon all round.

Check out this study by Princeton explaining the galanin process.


Why do we crave salt when hungover?

Alcohol is a diuretic – meaning it makes you urinate. This might not seem so bad – after all, alcohol goes in, alcohol goes out. It’s the natural cycle of life.

Unfortunately, there’s more to it than that: alcohol makes you urinate more than the amount of liquid you’re taking in.

This is because alcohol interferes with how your body regulates water.

Your body is able to sense how much and how salty that water is. When you’re dehydrated, you have less water but the same amount of salts. When this is detected, your brain produces ADH, which stops you from urinating.

Alcohol reduces the amount of ADH you produce, meaning you produce more urine instead.

And this is where salt comes in.

Sodium helps cells in the body retain water. Being dehydrated makes you want to consume salts in order to maintain the remaining water you have in your system.


What’s a healthier alternative to stuffing my face with high fat and salty foods?

Miso soup and eggs is a good start, as they contain both sodium and fats, but without the hidden extras in cured meats and processed foods. Coconut water is also supposed to be good for a hangover, as it contains the same five electrolytes found in human blood.

Why do I eat badly when I have my period?

It might seem like an age-old cliché, but it’s based in scientific reality.

The hormonal fluctuations that coincide with the menstruation cycle can have both physiological and psychological effects. During pre-menstruation (the luteal phase), greater amounts of progesterone are produced, which can lead to an increased appetite.

Unfortunately, this is a double-whammy phase, because it’s also the time women report lower confidence in their body image.

How do I avoid binge eating when I’m on my period?

This article by Psychology Today suggests you try to increase your serotonin levels with ‘good snacks’, like:

  • Popcorn
  • Fat-free fudge sauce
  • Sweetened breakfast cereal (so basically most cereals, considering their base sugar content)
  • Soy crackers
  • Pretzels

Following this logic, you might as well indulge in some dark chocolate.

Why do I eat badly when I’m depressed?

When you’re feeling sick or sad, you might find yourself turning to comfort foods. It might be a meal you have a strong emotional attachment to or a treat you rarely allow yourself – whatever it is, consuming it releases dopamine into your system.

Dopamine is the ‘feel good’ chemical that works as part of our reward system. When you’re depressed, you’ll be more likely to seek out the rush of reward and happiness that dopamine, which can lead to binge eating.

The kicker here is that a lot of foods that are easiest to access and binge on are unhealthy, normally high in sugar and trans fats – which add to the cycle, because trans fats dull your dopamine receptors.

How do I avoid eating badly when I’m depressed?

We’ve written an article on how you can eat your way to happiness; but to summarise:

  • more fish
  • more vegetables
  • more olive oil

Also known as the Mediterranean diet.

All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified medical practitioner. CBHS endeavours to provide independent and complete information, and content may include information regarding services, products and procedures not covered by CBHS Health Cover policies. For full terms, click here.

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