Are you lone­some tonight? Why we, like Elvis, turn to food for com­fort

Manteca Bulletin - - Perspective - MELISSA WDOWIK Colorado State Univer­sity

Au­gust 16 is known to many Elvis Pres­ley fans as the an­niver­sary of his un­timely death at the age of 42 in 1977. It is also the per­fect oc­ca­sion, for many, to honor him by in­dulging in his fa­vorite foods, in­clud­ing fried banana and peanut but­ter sand­wiches (with or with­out ba­con), fried bis­cuits, ba­con­wrapped meat­balls, chicken fried steak, jelly dough­nuts and veg­eta­bles sat­u­rated with but­ter and salt.

While it may be OK to in­dulge in these foods oc­ca­sion­ally, it is not healthy to make a reg­u­lar diet of them.

What was it about these foods that ap­pealed to Elvis? He could have af­forded spa cui­sine and high-end restau­rants, but he main­tained his love of south­ern-style com­fort food, al­ways in large por­tions, even when his weight crept up and his health went down.

As a food re­searcher and reg­is­tered di­eti­tian for more than 20 years, I have stud­ied some of the rea­sons we turn to com­fort food – and also how eat­ing to feed our emotions can some­times get out of hand.

Rea­son num­ber one: We like it There are many the­o­ries as to why we choose food we know is not good for us, not least of which is that it tastes good.

Other ideas range from so­cial norms, en­vi­ron­ment and mem­o­ries to emotions, ge­net­ics and the mi­cro­biome; the na­ture ver­sus nur­ture de­bate is alive and well for eat­ing habits.

So­cial norms, or ac­cept­able rules of be­hav­ior, af­fect both food choice and amounts eaten. If we are sur­rounded by oth­ers who eat, pre­pare and con­done un­healthy foods, we are more likely to con­sume them.

Sim­i­larly, our en­vi­ron­ment in­flu­ences our di­etary choices, for bet­ter or for worse. Grow­ing up poor in what are now known as food deserts may pre­clude the in­take of fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles. Ad­di­tion­ally, food prepa­ra­tion meth­ods are in­flu­enced by cul­tur­ally ac­cept­able tra­di­tions, such as cook­ing greens with pork fat, as is com­mon in the South.

Pres­ley was raised in a poor house­hold, where it is ru­mored that din­ners some­times in­cluded squir­rel meat, but his mother was an ex­cel­lent cook. He spoke fondly of her spe­cial­ties, such as fried chicken, mashed pota­toes, corn bread and gravy. These foods prob­a­bly later re­minded him of both his fam­ily and sim­pler times. It is easy to see the ap­peal of eat­ing foods from our child­hood; rem­i­nis­cences of fam­ily out­ings, hol­i­days and sport­ing events of­ten lead to con­ver­sa­tions of the foods that were eaten there. Even the smell of those foods can bring back happy mem­o­ries. There is some­thing to be said for food that is good for our soul.

Pres­ley’s long-time cook, Mary Jenk­ins Langston, re­ported that Elvis said the only thing in life he got any en­joy­ment out of was eat­ing. She obliged with the down-home cook­ing he loved, and he is said to have gone to ex­tremes to sat­isfy ad­di­tional crav­ings, such as his cross-coun­try flight to a Den­ver restaurant.

More than one in three turn to food for com­fort Elvis was not alone in find­ing com­fort in food. Thirty-eight per­cent of adults re­port overeat­ing or eat­ing un­healthy foods due to stress, with al­most half do­ing so at least weekly. This be­hav­ior serves as a dis­trac­tion or even a way to numb feel­ings of sad­ness or de­pres­sion. Emo­tional eat­ing, as this is called, may arise from an in­abil­ity to man­age emotions in other ways. It is self-per­pet­u­at­ing, as the eat­ing be­hav­ior in turn in­creases crav­ings and in­take .

As a di­eti­tian and nu­tri­tion ed­u­ca­tor, I am the first to de­clare there are no bad foods, only bad amounts. When choos­ing to com­fort our­selves with, well, com­fort food, I rec­om­mend try­ing a small por­tion and eat­ing it slowly; we will likely en­joy it just as much as a large por­tion if we are truly mind­ful about en­joy­ing it. Fol­low this with dis­tract­ing our­selves with a walk or other ac­tiv­ity, and we can avoid the neu­ro­log­i­cal and hor­monal adap­ta­tions that en­cour­age a con­tin­u­a­tion of emo­tional eat­ing. Short of say­ing that food is ad­dic­tive, I would say that re­search has shown that some in­di­vid­u­als are more sus­cep­ti­ble than oth­ers to the habit­form­ing be­hav­ior of overeat­ing high­fat, high-sugar foods.

Those neu­ro­log­i­cal and hor­monal adap­ta­tions are also in­flu­enced by genes. Leptin and ghre­lin are di­ges­tive neu­roen­docrine hor­mones known to reg­u­late hunger and full­ness. Cur­rent re­search fo­cus­ing on their ge­netic vari­ants and de­ter­mi­nants will help us un­der­stand eat­ing be­hav­ior, but most nu­tri­tion ex­perts agree that ge­netic sus­cep­ti­bil­ity can be over­pow­ered by in­ten­tional healthy eat­ing ef­forts.

The role of na­ture can be ex­plored fur­ther in ex­am­in­ing the mi­cro­biome, which refers to the bac­te­ria, good and bad, found in the gut. Re­search sug­gests lower di­ver­sity in gut mi­cro­biome is as­so­ci­ated with more un­healthy eat­ing be­hav­ior, and there is ev­i­dence that gut bac­te­ria af­fect how we re­spond to hor­mones that make us feel hun­gry or full.

What causes a low di­ver­sity of gut bac­te­ria? A diet high in fat and pro­cessed foods and a low in­take of fiber, fruits and veg­eta­bles. In­creased good bac­te­ria can be achieved with more fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles, legumes, fer­mented foods and pro­bi­otic sources such as yo­gurt and ke­fir.

Were Elvis’ eat­ing habits due to na­ture or nur­ture? We will never know. Also, we will never know the ex­tent of his lone­li­ness and whether his sense of iso­la­tion was fed, in part, by his fame. Yet I think we can all agree that it is heart­break­ing to think that a man who brought so much joy to so many peo­ple re­lied heav­ily on food for com­fort.

While the foods of our youth re­tain a hold on all of us, and bi­ol­ogy in­flu­ences our genes and gut, a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors was likely at play in Elvis’ yearn­ing for food. The les­son learned may be for each of us to fig­ure out a way to balance these in­flu­ences, and to do what’s best for both our body and soul.

This ar­ti­cle was orig­i­nally pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion. Read the orig­i­nal ar­ti­cle here: http://the­con­ver­sa­tion.com/ are-you-lone­some-tonight-why-we-like-elvis-turn-to-food-for-com­fort-82462.

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