So, I’ve been at home today feeling like crap thanks to a mammoth cold (and this is a momentous occasion for me: the way I was raised, you have to be dying before you stay home from school/work). Luckily, this coincided with a snow day, so I don’t feel *too* bad that I stayed in instead of braving the 1.5-hour commute that I normally face each morning.

Building up over the weekend and culminating this morning has been all of the usual: sore throat, hacking cough, intense headaches, profuse sweating, extreme tiredness (thanks to no sleep last night I suspect; I tried to make up for that with an extra three hours’ sleep this morning), and decreased appetite. However, I can’t be that ill, as I was quite happy to eat a little piece of chocolate cake with a cup of echinacea tea at 4pm. I also could have quite easily sneaked a piece of toffee from the box on the table (but didn’t). So this got me wondering: why DO we crave junk food when we’re unwell, rather than craving all of the things that could make us better more quickly (soups, water, vegetables etc)?

Just based on my own educated guesses, here are a few theories: when we’re ill, we crave comfort, and so it’s only natural that traditional ‘comfort’ (read: junk) foods would come into this. Secondly, we are often drawn to things that make sense when we’re sick. Surely it’s not unreasonable that someone with a raging sore throat would want to eat ice cream or something similarly soothing? And thirdly, think of all the normal reasons why we usually crave junk food: we’re frequently attracted to it when stressed (and illness can at times feel a bit trying), and the high levels of salt and sugar in these foods are also renowned for their ability to give a quick rush of energy – just what we feel we need at a time when we’re feeling a bit depleted.

However, I’m no medical professional, and figured there must be more to this. So here are some other ideas from Dr Internet (which perhaps some real doctors reading this may be able to substantiate):

  1. Your body craves salt so that it can hold in water for longer, which is needed to flush out the toxins of illness. This seems slightly odd: doesn’t salt cause you to lose water, seeing as you get very thirsty once you’ve had salty food?
  2. Your body craves calories to replenish fat stores (i.e. our sources of emergency energy). This is in spite of the fact that we all live in a world now where we have immediate access to everything we could possibly want to eat; our “programming” is still something along the lines of “if you can catch it, then kill it and eat it”.
  3. When we’re ill, we’re often tired, and when that happens, our bodies and subconscious have the edge over our conscious minds (which is what allows us to resist these foods at other times).
  4. The textures of processed foods are easy for us to chew and swallow – plus, the flavours of processed food can be more heightened, and so easier to taste while congested.

If nothing else is clear, it’s that I’m definitely not imagining this. Google abounds with people asking the very same question, along with people asking why they crave junk food when pregnant, on their period, or hungover – all other forms of “sickness” in the sense that you definitely feel rubbish at this time.

So what’s your go-to food when you’re ill? Come on, help me feel less bad :p

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