Why Does Comfort Food Make Us Feel Good?
With the potential to offer many benefits psychologically, comfort food is a mother’s favorite tool that has been healing children across the world for centuries by cooking specific family recipes with love.
Comfort foods have the ability to release dopamine into the body. This release bestows rewards such as pleasure, stress relief, and warm feelings that are often accompanied by deep memories that often include love and caring.
It is not only used by moms, dads, nanas, or papas but by our favorite coaches and teachers alike. “I’m sorry your team lost the championship. Let’s go get some ice cream,” or just reverse it to, “Yay, we won the championship! Let’s go get some ice cream, on me!”. Either way, somehow that ice cream made the rough time a little better and the good times, even better. At least it seemed to.
Does any of this sound familiar? The words were intended to be of genuine concern, very innocent actions on the part of our loved ones to want to express concern and love to us when we were hurting or happy. We knew that it was through food, not just any food though mind you. Usually, the foods were loaded in fats and carbs. Because of this, food has been used as a special type of medicine, or some kind of anti-depressant to cure any feeling that ails us. However, such patterns may become a life-threatening, serious problem especially if it is a habitual pattern causing excessive weight gain.
Comfort food consumption is seen as a response to emotional stress and, consequently, as a key contributor to an epidemic of obesity in the US. The provocation of specific hormonal responses leading selectively to increases in abdominal fat is seen as a form of self-medication.
Further studies suggest that consumption of comfort food is triggered in men by positive emotions, and by negative ones in women. The stress effect is particularly pronounced among college-aged women, with only 33% reporting healthy eating choices during times of emotional stress. For women specifically, these psychological patterns may be maladaptive.
All of the cultures from around the world have certain, specific customs around food. In my childhood, money was scarce and when there was some kind of special occasion, it meant that we would use limited resources to buy special foods. It meant that we were being treated in a special way. Birthdays meant choosing a special meal and a type of cake and ice cream (within a budget). Later in life, patterns of panic buying and stockpiling could be a response to any heightened forms of anxiety, fear, and/or uncertainty about the future when brought up in low-income households.
Funerals also involve bringing food to the bereaved. The funeral ritual is one of special interest to this topic. The message is quite obvious: “I hope this food makes you feel better.” Again, the gift is given with love and care but unfortunately, it’s another reinforcement to use food to make us feel better.
We are given messages early in our lives and then reinforced throughout our lives about how food can make us feel different or feel better. Thus, when we equate food with happiness, we continue to turn to food for comfort to feel happy or better, albeit temporary.
Psychology Behind Comfort Food
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which sends messages between brain cells. Dopamine is about motivation, reward, and pleasure. It gives a feel-good sensation, so when one eats comfort food that tastes good and is rewarding, a rush of dopamine occurs. The brain remembers this connection between the behavior (eating comfort food) and the reward (feeling pretty good). A person may be more motivated to continue the behavior because it gives you that feel-good reward.
Some psychology researchers think that just anticipating eating certain foods, generates dopamine. So, just thinking about eating Buddy’s pizza and Sanders hot fudge cream puffs could trigger dopamine! Imagine now why food marketing has been so successful…
Comfort foods give us a social connection, a reason to get together, to unite us. Research from the Universities of Tennessee and New York State in 2015 found that comfort foods remind us of our social relationships and helps us feel less lonesome especially when we are isolated. Comfort foods offer a sense of belonging especially when we take the action of baking and cooking together, it offers those psychosocial benefits as well.
Comfort foods are associated with positive memories and nostalgia as they remind us of when we were children in our home or with friends and extended family. Comfort foods may also be linked to a special person. When we eat comfort foods, it brings back happy memories from our past. Sometimes just the smell of that food cooking could trigger these positive memories. Psychological research shows that smells are powerfully linked to areas in the brain that are associated with memory and emotional experiences.
Top Comfort Foods
Comfort food is always evolving yet defies all trends. Whether we crave loco moco, spaghetti and meatballs, or a big bowl of matzo ball soup, we want our homespun favorites just the way mom, dad, or grandma used to make them. Here are some favorites in the United States:
- Spaghetti and meatballs
- Chicken Soup
- Chicken Pot Pie
- Beef Stroganoff
- Grilled Cheese and Tomato soup
- Mac n Cheese
- Ice cream
- Mashed potatoes and gravy
Recipe for one of the top favorite comfort foods…Chicken Pot Pie!
For the crust you will need:
1 box (14.1 oz) refrigerated pie crusts (2 Count), softened as directed on box
(or feel free to make your own dough if you’re up to it!)
For the pot pie filling you will need:
1/3 cup butter or margarine
1/3 cup chopped onion
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 3/4 cups chicken broth (from a 32-oz carton)
1/2 cup milk
2 1/2 cups shredded cooked chicken or turkey
2 cups frozen mixed vegetables, thawed
Steps to take:
Pre- Heat oven to 425°F.
Prepare pie crusts as directed on box for two-crust pie using a 9-inch glass pie pan.
In a 2-quart saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion; cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently, until tender. Stir in flour, salt, and pepper until well blended. Gradually stir in broth and milk, cooking and stirring until bubbly and thickened.
Stir in chicken and mixed vegetables. Remove from heat. Spoon chicken mixture into crust-lined pan. Top with second crust; seal edge and flute. Cut slits in several places in top crust.
Bake 30 to 40 minutes or until crust is golden brown. During last 15 to 20 minutes of baking, cover crust edge with strips of foil to prevent excessive browning. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Enjoy and feel better ok!