Manage your mind not to give in to temptation and overcome the desire for comfort food

Elena Casiraghi, Ph.D. - Equipe Enervit
The lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has completely changed our daily relationships. Not only at work, but also in our personal life as we could meet our closest friends only via video calls. At the same time, we craved more and more comfort food, mainly due to the time we had available at home which led us to cook food such as pizzas, pasta, cakes, etc. This ‘trend’ satisfied not only a personal passion and the rediscovery of traditions, that of cooking, but also an emotional need.

To confirm this correlation, a new study from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) found out that the desires we feel during this kind of social isolation share a neural basis with the food cravings we experience when we are hungry.

Researchers found out that after a day of total isolation, the sight of people intent on having fun together activates the same region of the brain that lights up when someone who hasn’t eaten for all day sees the photo of a dish of mac and cheese.

People forced into isolation crave social relationships with a cognitive mechanism similar to the way a hungry person craves food. Our finding fits to the intuitive idea that positive social interactions are a fundamental human need and acute loneliness is a state of aversion that motivates people to fix what’s missing, similar to hunger” says Rebecca Saxe, the John W. Jarve professor of Brain and Cognitive Science at MIT, a member of McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT and senior author of the study.

The research team actually collected the data of this study in 2018 and 2019, which is long before the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic and its lockdowns. Their new findings, outlined today in Nature Neuroscience, are part of a larger research program focused on how social stress affects people’s behavior and motivation.

Social Craving

The new study was inspired in part by a recent article written by Kay Tye, a former member of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT. In the 2016 study, Tye and Matthews identified a cluster of neurons in the brains of mice that represent feelings of loneliness and generate a push to social interaction after isolation. Studies about human beings have shown that being deprived of social contact can lead to emotional distress, even though the neurological basis of these feelings it is unclear.

The study: 40 participants and 10 hours of isolation

To create that environment of isolation, the researchers recruited healthy volunteers, mainly college students, and confined them to a windowless room at the MIT campus for 10 hours. They couldn’t use their smartphones, but the room had a computer they could use to contact the researchers if necessary.

At the end of the 10-hour isolation, each participant has undergone a scan in a MRI machine. What made this even more challenging was that even during this examination, participants did not meet any people. To make it possible, before the beginning of the isolation period each subject was trained on how to enter the machine, in order to avoid the need of help.

And there is more. Each of the 40 participants underwent 10 hours of fasting on a different day from the isolation one. After both periods of isolation or fasting, participants were scanned while they looked at images of food, images of people interacting and neutral images such as flowers. The researchers focused on a part of the brain called substantia nigra, a tiny structure located in the midbrain that had previously linked to hunger and illegal, addictive substances cravings such as certain drugs.

The researchers noted that when socially isolated subjects looked at a picture portraying a group of people in the midst of social interaction, the “desire signal” in their substantia nigra was similar to the signal produced when they looked at the photos of food after fasting. Moreover, the amount of activation of the substantia nigra was related to the strength with which patients evaluated their feelings of desire for food or social interaction.

In practice, the power of comfort food craving could be associated with one’s relational attitude. In other words, tell me how many social relationships you had (before the lockdown) and I’ll tell you your comfort food craving. Not by chance, subjects who reported felling chronically isolated months before the end of the study showed weaker cravings. On the contrary, on people who reported that their lives were indeed full of satisfying social interactions, this intervention had a greater effect on their brains.

In light of the lockdown, this study may explain the relationship between isolation and the desire of comfort food. And, not surprisingly, this desire was greater in people who were individually isolated. All with a proportional ratio to social relationships in the period prior to isolation.

The solution? A balanced diet and serotonin.

Becoming aware of how our mind acts is already undoubtedly a first step towards the solution. Now it is necessary to adopt practical behaviors to balance hormones.
Therefore, the strategies proposed below aim precisely a put back into balance the hormonal cascade through food favoring satiety, clarity of mind and global well-being.

  • Adopting a balanced dietary style, such as Zone, allows to balance hormones by favoring satiety and reducing nervous hanger. This nutritional strategy has its mechanism of action in its name. This term refers to that optimal zone of hormonal modulation, which allows to reach and maintain psychophysical well-being. In this nutritional strategy, besides balancing meals, the consumption of snacks plays a strategic role when more than 4 hours pass between meals. Snacks during the day are important: they can help to lose weight or maintain the physical shape achieved, optimize clarity of mind and energy availability. On one condition: they must be balanced in carbohydrates, proteins and fats. This, in fact, allows a better balance of glycaemia and insulin levels, avoiding important seesaws and reducing the desire for comfort food.
  • It has been observed that people who described a strong desire for comfort food, particularly in the evening hours, may be deficient in serotonin, a neurotransmitter not coincidentally also called “good mode hormone”. The suggestion, therefore, is to prefer foods that can contribute to its formation. Among these, chicken meat is rich in the tryptophan amino acid, precursor of serotonin, and should be, for example, included as a lean source of protein at dinner. And again, chocolate, a useful food because in its dark formulation is rich in cocoa polyphenols which have a positive impact on physical and mental well-being.

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