The term comfort food is such a part of the American lexicon that many people assume they understand what it is, though perhaps not why they crave it. Eaten occasionally, comfort food does not have to be a problem, but it becomes one when someone has the habit of consuming it as part of their regular diet.
Defining Comfort Food
When someone says these words to you, chances are your mind calls up very particular food types and the feeling you associate with them. The specific food you think about depends on your culture, family background and personal preferences. Comfort food is supposed to have a positive impact on your emotions and your sense of well-being. It is supposed to make you feel better. At least, that’s what people believe.
How Your Brain Works
Food is strongly associated with our brain’s natural wiring that seeks reward for our behaviors. When you eat food that makes you feel at least temporarily better, you learn to identify food with an improved mood. Evolutionarily speaking, this worked for early humans whose everyday existence was focused on survival.
In the good old days, millions of years ago, when the ancient ancestors saw something that looked tasty, they would eat it. If they were right about their assumptions, eating it would make them feel better. They would feel full, energetic and physically satisfied (and perhaps they understood that they weren’t going to die of starvation. That had to be a pretty positive emotion!). That reward is all they would need to ensure they remembered the food and where they got it the next time they were feeling not so good, as in hungry and weak.
How It Works Today
The problem is that, in modern times, the connection between the food people eat and the brain’s reward system is that it often isn’t about survival. Instead, food cravings often relate to emotional as well as physical triggers. Comfort foods are usually those that are high in sugar, fat, salt and carbohydrates. These foods tend to be calorically dense but nutritionally poor. Yet, people are temporarily emotionally satiated after eating them because they are often connected to childhood memories and cultural nostalgia.
Understanding Why People Eat Comfort Food
When asked, most people believe that eating comfort food improves their mood. In fact, one survey found 81% of respondents thought eating this type of food would make them feel better quickly. The same researchers also found that people’s moods tended to improve regardless of whether they ate comfort food, non-comfort food, or no food at all!
The Emotional Connection
The belief about the food’s power to make a person feel better is the driver for eating the food. This sets up a habit loop, creating an automatic response in the brain. There does tend to be one distinct difference between men and women in how they use comfort food.
Research has shown that men often turn to their favorite foods when they experience success, while women do so when they are lonely and depressed, as well as for more celebratory reasons. People can turn to comfort food when they are feeling either good or bad. There are five different types of emotional reasons for eating the fatty, salty, sugary or carb-rich foods you are likely to seek out for comfort:
- To numb negative emotions and temporarily feel better
- To enjoy the feel-good rewards eating these foods engenders
- To bring back childhood experiences surrounding family and culture
- To feel connected to others
- To celebrate special occasions
All of these reasons are emotionally based rather than seated as a physiological response.
The Physiological Connection
One of the problems associated with comfort food is that it creates neural pathways in the brain that essentially take over the body’s normal physiological responses. People eat when they aren’t hungry, and they continue to eat past the point of satiation. This is more likely to occur when people turn to comfort food to counter negative emotions.
Research is finding that there is a link between stress, comfort food and obesity, and the connection is physiological as well as emotional due to the changes that occur in the body when a person experiences chronic stress. Chronic stress has an impact on the body’s:
The changes in these systems contribute to a desire to eat more and often more of the types of food that aren’t healthy. When you eat these unhealthy foods, it also leads to changes in dopamine (the feel-good hormone) levels and the activity in the body’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis, leading to weight gain and obesity.
Changing the Brain’s Wiring
The good thing about the brain is that it has neuroplasticity, which means that you can rewire it for healthier eating responses. If you only eat comfort foods once in a blue moon, you probably don’t need to do much more than keep an honest eye on your food consumption habits for signs that your comfort food intake is on the uptick.
If, however, you are someone who turns to comfort food habitually, you can break the habit loop cycle. You can turn your brain’s natural reward system into a mechanism for change. Using mindfulness practices can help you identify your triggers and cravings and develop new responses and healthy eating habits.
One question people often ask when they begin to recognize that eating comfort foods is having a detrimental impact on their health is, “Is there such a thing as healthy comfort food?” There is, but finding the alternatives requires changing your perspective about comfort food and learning how to make similar dishes using healthier ingredients. If you crave pizza, for instance, try a low carb comfort food alternative. Make your own pizza at home with a cauliflower crust instead of the usual bread crust, load it up with vegetables, and go light (or leave out) the cheese.
Making the switch to alternatives doesn’t necessarily come easy. It helps to have support and guidance while going through the process. The Eat Right Now program offers a scientifically proven method and professional support that helps people change their eating habits. Are you ready to start down the road to a healthy lifestyle? If so, sign up today!