"Comfort Foods" - Why Do We Turn to Them?

You’ve probably seen movies and TV shows that depict a person turning to ice cream or cake after a break-up or other emotional event. It’s likely you’ve done something similar yourself; maybe you craved pizza after a difficult exam in college or desperately searched for your grandmother’s chicken noodle soup recipe years after leaving home.

The connection between mood and food is complex. Regularly pulling out comfort foods like ice cream, cake, or chips might sound rewarding initially, but it could ultimately leave you feeling dissatisfied or embarrassed. On the other hand, seeking both comfort and nourishment from your food can give you an emotional boost.

So how can you tell if your comfort foods are helping or hurting you? Understanding why, when, and how often you crave certain foods can help you make sure your relationship with food stays positive and healthy.

Why do you turn to comfort foods?

You associate certain foods with happy memories – There are certain smells and tastes you carry with you into adulthood. The healing properties of your grandmother’s soup aren’t just nutritional, they’re sentimental as well: the soup reminds you of being cared for and nurtured. The social attachments you form to certain foods explains why you might want comfort food more when you’re feeling lonely.

You’re experiencing stress and feel overwhelmed – In times of emotional upheaval, you might set aside traditional patterns of eating if you think doing so might help you feel better. For example, you like cake but know you can’t have it all the time. It makes sense that when you’re feeling bad, you make an exception.

You had a really great day – Comfort foods aren’t just for bad days. Researchers have found that comfort food is often used as a reward for a job well done. Certain foods might symbolize pleasure or celebration, concretely commemorating a promotion or a finished project.

You need a break – One study conducted on comfort food found that women and men generally have different tastes when it comes to emotionally rewarding foods. The researchers posited that women generally turn to things like potato chips rather than prepared foods like soup because it signifies a break from providing for others.

When does comfort food hurt?

Because your emotional needs are more dominant than your physical needs in the push toward comfort foods, emotionally rewarding eating isn’t always the most nutritious. One recent study concluded that it isn’t actually the particular food you eat that affects your mood. Instead, you could feel better after eating because you’ve put time and space between yourself and your stressors.

If you find that you’re always seeking out unhealthy foods, keep in mind that you might feel just as good after eating a healthy substitute. You can also have the best of both worlds by putting a healthy twist on old favorites.

Other research suggests that ingesting fatty acids might improve your mood, but there’s a catch—you can become desensitized to the chemical boost the more you eat, meaning that your body will require more fatty acids for the same results. After a while, the food you’re eating for comfort might not comfort you anymore.

If you’re eating a certain food because it reminds you of the past, flipping through a photo album or calling an old friend might boost your mood more than emotional eating.

If you turn to food to reduce stress much of the time, you may be conditioning yourself to use eating as your primary method of coping with difficult times. The temporary emotional boost quickly turns negative if regular stresses in your life persist unresolved.

You don't have to deal with anxious and depressed feelings alone. Talk to a trusted friend, or see a counselor. Commit to finding help to sort through difficult aspects of your life. You can feel better in a way that’s meaningful and long-lasting.