A year of global crisis has led to a lot of cultural surprises. For one, we realized our society has an intense collective unconscious, moving nearly in unison through stages like virtual game nights and sourdough bread baking. That, and cares enough about restaurants to dine outdoors during winter. This pandemic has taught us so much about our humanity—or, in far too many cases, our lack of it—and through it all, we’ve made these discoveries with a snack in hand.
There is no question I’ve been asked more about snacking in the last year than ever before. When asked this, I of course answer with my own snacks in hand. The answer shocks everyone because it includes the fact that, rather than try to fight a biological urge, you’re actually doing your body more of a service by giving in. You might be confused by that, or disbelieving. Let’s discuss.
Why Global Crisis Makes Us Want to Snack
When the sudden urge to snack nonstop hit in March 2020, it took no one by surprise more than me. That’s because I’m historically a stress non-eater. Yet when I got laid off last March due to the pandemic, heartbreakingly just months into a new position at a large restaurant group, I found myself hitting the cookies hard. And the corn chips. And the cheesy poofs. And everything else I rarely eat, at rapid speed.
I hadn’t even begun to wrap my brain around my own unexpected behavior before nearly everyone I know was telling me they too were snacking uncontrollably. Many had the same confusion I did, that stress typically leads them to not be hungry. The collective dread, doom scrolling, news watching, and fear of other people being infected was a wholly new and different variety of stress than anyone had experienced before. And in turn, we were all responding to it differently. I began looking into why this unprecedented crisis was having such a specific impact on everyone, and what the best way to handle it would be.
The Cortisol Connection
The first, and biggest, reason that this past year has made everyone hungrier is because of cortisol. It’s a hormone our bodies make regularly, which is typically at its peak in the morning. That’s to help us wake up and be excited for our day. At night, when we need to relax in preparation for sleep, cortisol levels are at their lowest. Cortisol also kicks up during acute situations of stress. Add in a nonstop news cycle of catastrophe and an inability to safely leave one’s home, and suddenly cortisol is having a 24/7 party in our bodies. In turn, we’re hungry outside of meal times.
While consuming sugar regularly can lead to myriad health issues, the short term consumption of sugar actually reduces our cortisol levels. That’s why the cravings for everything from banana bread to candy happened: They were the result of our bodies looking for a short term solution to an immediate problem. In crisis, our bodies aren’t concerned about systemic inflammation. We’re simply seeking to solve a problem in the moment.
In addition to sugar, stress makes us crave easily digestible, low nutrient snack foods. One study notes that “Uncontrollable stress changes eating patterns and the salience and consumption of hyper-palatable foods.” There is no better definition of “hyper-palatable” than chips, crackers, and other processed snacks. Just like sugar, there are negative long term health implications of eating too much of these foods. And just like sugar, our cravings for them are a result of our bodies attempting to reduce our physiological stress in the short term. Because the result is an actual reduction in cortisol, and the snacking accomplishes the goal, our cravings should be seen as biologically insightful, not innately unhealthy—even if the long term implications from continually satisfying them are.
What happens if you don’t give in to those stress-induced food cravings? You either stay stressed, or you find a different way to lower your cortisol, such as light exercise or meditation. Technically, you’re better off in the long term by not eating foods that aren’t nutrient dense. However, if you don’t successfully manage to reduce your stress because, for example, meditating during a pandemic is really difficult, that stress becomes chronic and leads to bigger health problems.
The Urge For Nostalgia
In addition to the biological craving of foods for stress reduction, difficult times naturally make us want comfort. There’s a category of dishes we term “comfort foods” for precisely that reason. They may be the foods we grew up on, treats we were given, or dishes made occasionally by a loving relative. Our memory of these occasions is cellular, and science has learned in recent years that our experiences are literally imprinted to an extent in our cells. The way that our physical selves store our experiences is called epigenetics. The CDC describes that as “the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence.”
What is the relationship between epigenetics and food cravings in a time of crisis? When stressed, we inherently reminisce about and recall upon how we were comforted in past times of stress. Given that one of the chief comforts for most people includes food (in addition to comforting activities such as wrapping ourselves in a blanket or watching a familiar movie), the foods we crave in those times may be ones we haven’t otherwise thought about in decades.
I knew that our society had hit an intense level of needing nostalgia when I saw a fine dining chef acquaintance post her and her wife’s dinner of hot dogs and Kraft mac and cheese on Instagram last April. That happened the same week that I was scouring the internet for SpaghettiOs. You can bet that Kraft dinner wasn’t served in my friend’s kitchen any more frequently than SpaghettiOs are in mine. In fact, I hadn’t even eaten them since childhood.
When I did manage to get my hands on a can, it didn’t matter they smelled vaguely like vomit and had a pretty terrible texture. I was transported to the basement of my childhood home, into the pantry where I first came across a can of them. Prepared and canned foods were a rarity in my upbringing, and I’d gazed in wonder at the tinned pasta with a cartoon on its label. Convincing my mother to let me have them was no small feat. Whatever your childhood food fantasy, it would be surprising if you hadn’t played it out this past year. The urge for childhood foods is cellular, and consuming them provides us with a much needed feeling of safety and comfort.
The Need For Stimulation
In a time when most of us have not been involved in any of the activities we normally do for joy, such as travelling, dining with friends, or going to concerts, we are in turn drastically understimulated. There are few options to rival any of those, and the virtual versions, while better than nothing, are still severely lacking in overwhelming our senses in the ways that real world activities do.
Obviously one thing we haven’t had to give up is eating. Eating is a multisensory experience, and snacks foods are particularly so. Beyond taste, smell, and sight, snack foods give us an extra punch of texture. They’re crunchy, crinkly, chewy, or silky. The act of eating chips isn’t anything like eating a salad: it’s more intense, and more multisensory. Snack foods come in visually stimulating packages, and feel good on our fingers and in our mouths. This is yet one more way our cravings of this past year are deeply seated and biologically real, not some sort of temporary willpower weaknesses.
How To Safely Indulge
There’s no doubt that snack foods are not nutritionally ideal. There is also no doub they are serving important biological, physiological, and epigenetic functions during this time period of our lives. With this in mind, there is nothing wrong with indulging our cravings for snack foods in the short term. It’s only because we are now pushing a year into an extremely stressful pandemic that has yet to plateau that we now need to think more scrupulously about longer term health effects, as our short term choices have gone on so long that they’re heading into that territory.
Because purely denying our cravings only leads to more stress, the best way to handle them is with moderation. One way to accomplish this is when you’re craving something crunchy, to convince yourself to eat something crunchy and healthy first. Eat a carrot and a cucumber, then dig into the chips after. With a partially full stomach and a good amount of chewing done, you’ll eat less of them. Alternately, if vegetables sound terrible—and they do for many people these days—do more of sneaking them into your food. Add kale to your pesto, cauliflower to your mashed potatoes, spinach into a fruit smoothie, or zucchini in your banana bread. Getting even more nutrients into the whole foods you eat will help balance the lack of them in the snack foods.
In a time of crisis, there is no quick fix or easy answer for how to best cope. The only thing we know for sure is that creating more stress around how you’re handling stress is definitely not a solution. This is the perfect opportunity to teach yourself to relax, allow yourself comfort, and not feel guilty about doing what makes you feel good. When the world reopens and we’re all galavanting about again, our choices will naturally change. The healthiest life you can live right now is the one that keeps you alive, sane, and in one piece...and if the worst thing you did during the worst global crisis of our time is eat some snacks, you can consider yourself a pretty decent person.