Food vs. LOLz


Research indicates that “comfort food intake may reduce stress by acting on the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis.” That proposition alone seems enough to fuel several academic careers. It is one of many ideas brought up in a paper by Elizabeth S. Bast and Elliot M. Berry, titled “Laugh Away the Fat? Therapeutic Humor in the Control of Stress-induced Emotional Eating,” which contains several jumping-off points for expanded ways of thinking about such practices as binge-eating.

The work concludes with the suggestion that humor “be investigated as an additional therapy especially among obese people with stress-induced emotional eating problems.” People suffer from irritability, anxiety, stress, depression, mood swings, and a state described as tense tiredness. Any of these conditions might be caused by nutritional factors, and might be alleviated by better nutrition, but are likely to delude a person into pursuing even worse nutrition, in the mistaken belief that a feast of chocolate-covered bacon will help them feel better.

The authors wanted to learn the most effective coping strategies to deal with emotional eating, and what kinds of behavioral modifications might be useful. In the realm of mood regulation, there are two hypotheses, which are not mutually exclusive, but which could very well work together synergistically. As they express it:

The hedonic effects of comfort food may be augmented by subsequent endocrine effects, especially in persons experiencing high levels of stress.

Nutrient-dependent effects result from “the specific quality of the food and possible biochemical effects that may occur due to these qualities.” Hedonic effects stem from the brain’s pleasure-reward circuits, which may be corrupted by too much exposure to hyperpalatable foods loaded with fat and sugar.

Related to nutrient-dependent effects, clues abound, connected with protein, fatty acid, carbohydrates, insulin, hypoglycemia, tryptophan, serotonin, glucocorticoids, and their interactions. There is a lot to sort out and, as always, prudent scientists admit how much research remains to be done:

Without more evidence it is difficult to reach any conclusions except that the relationship between insulin release and the propensity for emotional eating should be studied further.

The term “ego-threatening stressor” applies to an activity that includes the possibility of failing in front of other people, such as public speaking. With an event like this on the horizon, people tend to go for the high-calorie, hyperpalatable foods — which paradoxically are quite likely to affect their performance in a negative way. There may be an additional guilt burden, as the individual engages in self-blame. So the blind, instinctive seeking of comfort can not help but backfire.

Tiny, unsung heroes

These words written by Peter Andrey Smith for The New York Times are worth repeating:

Micro-organisms in our gut secrete a profound number of chemicals, and […] among those chemicals are the same substances used by our neurons to communicate and regulate mood, like dopamine, serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These, in turn, appear to play a function in intestinal disorders, which coincide with high levels of major depression and anxiety.

Along with influencing a person’s sense of well-being, serotonin is connected with appetite regulation and food intake. With the help of the gut microbiome, at least 80% of a body’s serotonin is manufactured in the GI tract, and the different kinds of bacterial colonies can be picky about their nutritional demands.

Some gut bacteria increase insulin sensitivity. The real possibility exists that manipulating populations of interior microbes can change people’s lives profoundly. Maybe answers to both diabetes and misery-based obesity can be discovered by listening to and befriending the microbiota.


Source: “Laugh Away the Fat? Therapeutic Humor in the Control of Stress-induced Emotional Eating,”, January 2014
Source: “Can the Bacteria in Your Gut Explain Your Mood?,”, 06/23/15
Photo credit: Marc Kjerland via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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