How Comfort Food Gives Comfort

People usually turn to comfort food as a form of consolation when they are feeling guilt, sadness, uncertainty and fear or are under emotional stress. It is usually of high caloric nature such as fat combined with salt (fries or potato chips) or carbohydrates (sweets or chocolate), and provides comfort, nostalgic or sentimental value.

Consuming such high calorie food triggers a sense of pleasure, emotional elevation and relaxation. This is because this type of food also called high palatable food, activates the same reward and pleasure regions in the brain that are active in drug addiction.

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Comfort food can also be associated with warm memories of our families (the way our parents and/or grandparents prepared certain type of food or drink) and gives us feeling of belonging. Situations that cause eating comfort foods range from loneliness, guilt and depression to reward and celebration.

Food consumption leads to production of dopamine which then activates the pleasure and reward centers in the brain. Repeating this habit in order to experience the positive feeling of gratification suppresses the signals for fullness and hunger, makes people overeat and can result in obesity. Stress-eating is considered one of the key factors of increased obesity in the USA.

 

What kind of food is considered comfort food?

Comfort food differs between genders as well as among cultures and regions for example comfort food is pasta in Italy and paella in Spain. A study also reports differences in the choice of comfort food in different age groups – while young adults (18-34 year olds) prefer ice cream and cookies, mature adults (35-54 year olds) prefer soup and pasta, and the elderly turn to soup and mashed potatoes.

Also, men usually consume comfort food as a form of reward for success, while women do it for consolation. This can also be a reason why males prefer steaks and pizza or pasta, while females consume ice cream and unhealthy “junk” food. Despite the differences, there are a few common truths:

  • eating chocolate reduces tension and also provides a sense of pleasure and reward; the presence of psychoactive molecules such as anandamides and theobromine in chocolate stimulates the brain and results in improvement of good mood
  • mood disorders are often correlated to abnormal eating behavior; eg. depressed individuals often turn to palatable comfort food to reduce the negative feelings
  • comfort food is often correlated to positive memories, belonging or a feeling of childhood security like the smell of Christmas cookies or Thanksgiving dinner
  • comfort food is used as a form of self-medication or mood elevator
  • high palatable food is often served on socializing events and special occasions such as birthdays and parties that makes it hard to avoid it
  • comfort food and drinks is not only consumed as a mood elevator when individuals are feeling down, but can also be consumed as a form of celebration
  • warm meals or beverages are often considered as a comfort food in winter months when periods of darkness are longer, that causes feelings of isolation and loneliness

What else can give comfort?

It is still open for debate whether comfort food provides more comfort than our favorite food, or it is just the psychological effect of the connection to our happy memories. In general, clean and healthy diets make us feel good, but in certain moments only comfort food makes us feel better.

Eating comfort food in moderation will not kill you. However, increasing the frequency of consumption or turning it into a habit may lead to weight gains, increased amount of abdominal fat and even obesity.

When feeling down try turning to healthier solutions, such as raw or no-sugar sweets, or use exercise as a mood elevator and meditation as relaxation and emotional support. At last, according to Shira Gabriel, PhD, re-reading beloved books or re-watching favorite TV shows can provide the same level of comfort.

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