Comfort foods offer many benefits – at least psychologically, if not physically. These foods make possible the release of dopamine into the body, conferring rewards such as pleasure, stress relief, and warm feelings, often accompanied by deep memories that can include caring and love. We’re all eating more comfort foods these days, from snacks to main dishes. Learning why we consume such tempting edibles may help us manage our cravings – and even our stress.
Food is fuel – right? Nutritionists have called on us to think of food this way, and to be strategic about what we put in our mouths. When we eat with our long-term goals in mind, we make better choices and feed ourselves what our bodies need to build and maintain health for ourselves.
But seriously: This approach may make us healthy, but does it really make us happy? I mean birthday cake and ice cream happy. Fried chicken and mashed potatoes happy. Even (if you have a jones for Korean food) kimchi happy.
Braised kale and egg white omelets may make us feel virtuous, but will they really hit the spot like waffles with melted butter and maple syrup? Would – or should – we ever eat for the sake of our personal happiness?
We sure do enough of it. Given the upheavals we’ve all sustained since the arrival of the novel coronavirus into our lives – quarantine and isolation, food and supply shortages, insecurity about our futures – maybe we can be forgiven for engaging in what experts call “emotional eating.”
The Washington Post reports that “iconic brands like Goldfish, Oreos, Campbell Soup and Doritos fill the pantries of homebound consumers in search of small pleasures.” The same article quotes the chairman of Mondelez (manufacturer of Triscuits, Ritz, and Chips Ahoy), who comments, “Sharing a snack with your kids, as everybody [is] sort of cooped up in the house, brings back a feeling of normalcy, of togetherness.”
The only downside – apart from deleterious long-term effects on our cardiovascular system, cholesterol, and blood pressure – is that this happiness (which is measurable and real) is so fleeting. Food “highs,” like opiate intoxication, are only temporary. And like a drug high, elation will leave behind memories, which we can interpret either fondly, or with alarm.
Comfort Foods Come in Every Flavor – and from Every Culture
You may feel pretty sure that you know what comfort foods are. And whatever you think, you’re probably right. That’s because there is no single accepted definition for the term “comfort food” – and because the concept is so entwined with not only childhood favorites but with whatever your native culture eats as well.
Things beside food can help lift your mood and relieve stress, like re-reading a treasured book or watching a favorite TV show. But food is quicker to produce immediate satisfaction.
If you’re Egyptian, for example, perhaps your comfort food is chai bi laban, or milk-tea, and ful medames, a simple bean stew. If you’re South Korean, as mentioned above, your choices probably include kimchi, fermented spiced cabbage that you’re likely to serve with everything from scallion pancakes to porridge. And, of course, if your home country is the U.S., well, just load up your plate with high-density, carbohydrate-rich, fatty, sweet and/or salty treats and main dishes. There are too many examples to enumerate, but just to get your American mouth watering, we’ll name a few: chicken soup, macaroni and cheese, French fries, biscuits and gravy, grits, and so many more. American food culture is stocked full of comfort foods.
Kimchi is one of the most popular comfort foods in Korea and throughout Asia. (Source: Dinkun Chen, via Wikimedia Creative Commons)
Is there anything we can draw from all these diverse choices to construct a working definition? Well, let’s give it a try. We could say, as does Psychology Today, that “food that produces a pleasant emotional state” is the most expansive definition, keeping in mind that it’s more about the mindset, or context, than about the menu selection.
For one example of a man’s emotional encounters with comfort foods from around the world, and his sometimes tragicomic responses, check out Comfort Eating with Nick Helm on MagellanTV.
Researchers examining the effects of comfort food on the mind and body separated comfort foods into four categories:
- Nostalgic – food that reminds us of positive childhood experiences
- Indulgent – special foods designed for special events
- Convenient – tasty foods that are easy to cart, carry, and consume
- Physically Comforting – foods that “feel good” to eat, with pleasant mouth-feel and flavor profile
Segregating food choices into these buckets enables scientists to focus on the effects of eating comfort foods rather than the specifics of food choice. Items in these categories have been found to relieve stress and to modify or change emotional states or feelings. Temporarily, at least.
How does this play out? Let’s take a look at how comfort foods affect the body, both psychologically as well as physiologically. Dig in!
The (Short-lived) Psychological Benefits of Comfort Foods
Imagine your favorite big holiday meal. In the U.S., that’s likely to be a traditional Thanksgiving feast: turkey with stuffing and all the trimmings – cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes with gravy, candied yams, corn and green beans, and a big dessert most likely featuring piping hot apple and pumpkin pies à la mode.
Are your salivary glands starting to activate? Can you almost smell the scents of so much home-cooked goodness? These visceral responses are all part of humans’ natural response to the “prize” offered by food – and it all starts even before your first bite. These many sources of food pleasure, originating in the body as well as the brain, can be nearly as satisfying as consuming the meal itself. But, let’s be honest here, not quite as satisfying.
This is because the mind is primed to seek fulfilling meals by activating a series of responses that are stimulated by all the senses, plus memory, not just by the experience provided by the mouth’s taste centers. Even imagination, i.e., fantasizing about eating tasty foods, can bring the body’s complex reward system to life.
Glorious comfort food for Americans: Macaroni and cheese. (Source: Sumeet Jain, via Wikimedia Creative Commons)
Food that triggers the reward system has been shown to elevate mood and release stress, albeit temporarily. This experience, common to all of us, is often set off by foods – like family holiday meals – with which we associate a positive social memory. Physically, comfort foods work to make the body feel full or satisfied. Emotionally, the experience of eating can make us recall and re-experience a feeling of belonging or connectedness.
Our response – comfort – is often less about the stimulus, the food itself, than it is about the motivation behind it. That motivation is squarely in the emotions, and it can be described in one word: love. We devour comfort foods because, in essence, they remind us of being loved.
Researchers rated emotional responses to a comfort food found in many cultures: chicken soup. They discovered that those with the strongest positive responses to the stimulus also had stronger primal emotional relationships with family caregivers. Bottom line? The more love you feel by eating chicken soup, the stronger your life relationships have been.
How Comfort Foods Work – the Physical Effects
Our bodies naturally secrete a wide array of substances to keep our internal systems running and to help us react to various stimuli in our environment. Dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter, is a nearly magical purveyor of good feelings, as we’ll soon see. And dopamine production is stimulated by, among other things, the experience, and even the promise, of satisfying foods.
With the proper stimulus, dopamine will flood the brain and step up our feelings of pleasure; this is the essence of the body’s reward system. Dopamine has been shown to make people desire, even crave, certain foods, giving people a “push” to
- attain the goal (as often as possible),
- spend time and attention on the goal, and
- take risks toward obtaining the goal.
If you haven’t yet figured it out, dopamine is the substance that makes many things pleasurable. Everything from reading a good book to sex brings forward a dopamine response. And, of course, drugs from nicotine to opiates rely on dopamine to enhance the sensations you feel while using them.
As examined in MagellanTV’s The Gut: Our Second Brain, dopamine acts as a chemical transmitter, sending messages between neurons in the brain, or from neurons to muscles in the gastrointestinal tract (the gut). Released when expecting a reward, dopamine soon comes to be associated with pleasure. Simple anticipation may be enough to raise its levels.
Dopamine guides people to prioritize pleasure in all their interactions with substances like food and drugs. While stress often makes bodies crave the release of dopamine, a rush of the hormone adds to a pleasurable response. However, as we’ve learned, dopamine provides at best a transitory experience. When its levels in the brain fall, we revert to our previous state, whatever it might have been: stressed, realizing we’re alone, stuck in our homes, and craving release. Hello comfort foods!
Stress signals the need for relief, which leads us to seek instant – or close to instant – gratification, often in the form of food. This releases dopamine and increases a feeling of well-being in response to the stimulus of food. That feeling, though temporary, is significant. Concerned about the relationship between food consumption and fat? Check out The Skinny on Fat Cells for an examination how adipose tissues function in the human body.
Finding Comfort in Healthier Food
We’re all familiar with cravings – and the increasingly brief experience of pleasure from satisfying them. It probably isn’t a surprise to learn that the old ’60s mantra, “If it feels good, do it,” actually has a fairly limited shelf life.
Nutritious food makes us feel virtuous, too. This kale is ready for simmering and serving. (Source: Rasbak, via Wikimedia)
Stress, from which none of us is immune, will cause cravings to appear. Physiologically, stress releases chemicals that cause us to desire relief, generally in the form of a substance or activity (exercise, sleep) that will unlock our pleasure centers and the dopamine that brings them to life.
But what if we consciously desire to choose better for ourselves? What if we seek a healthy release? Well, it is possible to “train” the body to want substances with fewer downsides, fewer additives like salt, sugar, and fat. How to do this?
One blogger suggests food substitutions. Here’s a list of foods culled from that blog that may conquer cravings for comfort: almonds (in place of peanut butter), avocado (for its soothing “mouth-feel”), blueberries (full of antioxidants), yogurt (replacing whole milk), salmon (substituting for red meat), and even the ever-popular kale, low in calories and packed with vitamins. We might even come to appreciate that braised kale and egg white omelet we passed over earlier!
It’s not only eating substitutions that can help. Though we may feel isolated, we can still rely on our friends and support systems to help with stress-caused cravings. Especially if we have come to feel that “food is our friend,” alternative stress-release activities can help us overcome these cravings. Talking to someone about our thoughts and feelings, or processing them through writing, may not give us the instant gratification that eating salty buttered popcorn will, but the long-term results will surely be more satisfying – and might even help us to live longer, healthier lives.
So, let’s enjoy the best life has to offer – in moderation. Comfort foods supply pleasant memories, satisfying feelings, and the pleasures of dopamine release. That’s not necessarily a recipe for all-healthy living, but in times of stress and uncertainty, comfort has its place.
Kevin Martin is Senior Writer for MagellanTV. He writes on a wide variety of topics, including outer space, the fine arts, and modern history. He has had a long career as a journalist and communications specialist with both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. He resides in Glendale, California.