What is a food coma?
After any holiday or sporting event, if your family is anything like mine, you probably feel the effects of a large, hearty meal. As a kid, I’d stuff my face with as many buttery dinner rolls as I could get my hands on, then follow that up with a big helping of mashed potatoes, honeyed ham (for Christmas) or chicken wings (for Superbowl Sunday), and so, so many cookies for dessert. There were always green vegetables on the table in the form of green beans and side salads, but damned if I’d touch those when I could be having some tasty, tasty carbs instead. Nowadays, of course, I do a little better, but the temptation is still there.
At some point in our lives, we’ve all said with a groan, “I shouldn’t have eaten that” or “I ate too much”. When you don’t feel well after a meal, your body is trying to tell you “There weren’t very many nutrients in that meal” or “Something in that meal was actively harmful”. When it happens to animals or even babies, they instinctively avoid that food in the future. But we adults do it to ourselves over and over again. Why?
Most animals have an innate “nutritional wisdom”. It’s how they protect themselves from nutrition-related disease. When they’re deficient in something, they instinctively select for foods with flavors that indicate they’re rich in that nutrient. The animal doesn’t actually know or understand the concepts of vitamins or protein, their bodies just know what to do the same way you reach for water when you’re thirsty. They get a craving that guides them toward what they need. Even human babies have demonstrated nutritional wisdom, showing a preference for foods whose flavors are tied to nutrients they need even when we as adults would find those flavors repulsive.
And when these animals (and babies) aren’t deficient in anything? They naturally eat a wide variety of things, showing no preference for any one food over another. So what happened? Why don’t we all crave spinach when we need calcium or shellfish when we need magnesium instead of craving things with no nutritional value like sugar and salt? Why don’t we enjoy a wide variety of foods equally instead of having our favorites we crave over and over again?
For one, most of our food has artificial flavors that confuse our innate sense of something’s nutritional value. If it tastes like a strawberry, our body figures, it must be as nutritious as a strawberry. Never mind that it’s a lollipop. Part of nutritional wisdom is craving foods the body finds satisfying and, unfortunately, all those carbs give us a quick burst of energy that is extremely satisfying in the short term. Very early in our lives, we become conditioned to associate flavorful, high-carb foods with “something good” even if the long-term effects of those foods are actually quite bad. Our bodies become slaves to their own wiring, constantly trying to hook us up with more of “what we need” in an agricultural environment that has made real food like meat, vegetables, and fruit less flavorful and nutritious while making junk food more flavorful and addictive.
It becomes a vicious cycle. The food you eat is nutrient-poor but tastes good, so your body craves more of it because it thinks that tasty food will eventually supply it with the nutrients it needs. Meanwhile, the real cure is probably a bundle of kale or Brussels sprouts, which your taste buds may find repulsive. In nature, repulsive foods aren’t healthy–and healthy foods taste good.
We can thank our own runaway agriculture and packaged food industries for our problems with sugar addiction, overeating, and obesity. Advertising, artificial flavors, and addicitive additives have completely overridden the nutritional wisdom we were born with. And yet, it’s on us to break free. When you overindulge, a lack of nutrients (and an excess of toxins) causes lethargy, nausea, indigestion, and that general feeling of “ugh” leading to a food coma. Your body feels heavy and uncomfortable. Maybe your hands and toes even tingle or go numb. You can’t keep your eyes open. And when you wake up, you might have a bit of a hangover whether or not you ingested any alcohol before your “nap”.
We keep doing this to ourselves because we’re addicted and because our bodies are confused as to what’s actually good for them now. Flavors are no longer tied to nutritional value, but our animal brains are still wired for flavor. So we have to be extremely mindful of our choices, making decisions that may often go against our instincts, if we want to break the cycle.
The best way to prevent a food coma–and to fight the cravings that may have led you to overindulge in the first place–is to eat a variety of healthy foods whether they taste good or not (for more detailed information about fighting cravings, see What to Do When You Have Cravings). Over time, if you really pay attention to their flavors, you may notice that your tastebuds adapt and something that used to be gross is now actually quite satisfying. That’s your body learning what it had forgotten: what real nutrients actually taste like. Do this for long enough and the crash you experience next time you overindulge in nutrient-poor foods might even put you off of them forever!