Most of us have experienced the feeling of a “food coma” – that feeling of heaviness and fatigue that comes after a particularly filling meal or an evening of overindulgence. While we hang our heads and ask ourselves why we felt it was necessary to have that one final serving of Thanksgiving turkey, researchers have been examining the impact of the “food coma” in an attempt to discern what we can learn from the signals our bodies are sending us.
The technical term for the “food coma” is “negative post-ingestive feedback”, and Fred Provenza, a researcher at Utah State University, thinks we could learn a lot from paying more attention to when we experience the food coma.
According to one 1997 study,
“Drowsiness is a commonly experienced phenomenon following food ingestion… in contrast to a liquid meal, a solid meal produces a decrease in sleep onset latency when compared to an equivalent volume of water. Further, it was demonstrated that meal constituents have no effect on postprandial sleepiness.”(1)
In other words, overindulging in certain (solid) foods is what causes the “food coma”. But Provenza believes there may be more to it than that.
Finding The Nutrients We’re Missing
Recently, Provenza opened up in an interview about his latest research, describing experiments in animal models that tested the theory that animals will seek out foods that are rich in nutrients that they are missing in their diets.
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While the animals did indeed often opt for foods associated with the vitamins and minerals they needed, things are a little more complicated for modern-day humans.
Many of us do not function in sync with our natural landscape; much of the food that we eat, for example, is loaded with artificial flavors that have nothing to do with nutritional value.
This causes a problem when our bodies are craving a specific vitamin or mineral, but we don’t understand where to get it from. Cravings for fresh fruit get translated into a craving for sweets(2) and so on.
Provenza’s research is scheduled to be published in the journal Appetite(3), but it has been a long road to publication – five years of studying the messages that people can get from the eating habits of livestock and wild animals.
Can We Trust Our Cravings?
Studies in humans have shown that even as infants, we gravitate towards the foods that contain the nutrients we need(4). Yet today, many of us push ourselves when it comes to food, consuming large amounts of foods that we know will have an adverse effect on us – the dreaded “food coma”, for example.
The question is, can we trust our cravings to guide us towards the foods we need?
Provenza believes that while we may occasionally be able to rely on our guts – and our taste buds – to steer us in the right direction, ultimately most modern humans in Western societies have lost track of our internal “map” of what certain nutrients taste like. It’s only natural, since artificial flavors are everywhere, that we experience some of this confusion. But can the effects be counteracted?
Provenza recommends a balanced diet with plenty of wholesome foods – especially for those who previously had subsisted on a diet of mainly junk food. For junk food addicts, eating healthy for a few weeks can serve to highlight the negative effects that excessive junk food consumption was having on their bodies – and help to realign their body’s natural sense of what it needs in terms of nutrients.
When it comes to what you eat, one of the most important lessons you can learn is how to listen to your body and what it’s telling you. If more people learned to do this, a lot less people would indulge in junk food, and it’s likely we’d see decreased rates of vitamin and mineral deficiencies as well.