Why do you crave comfort food?
“Comfort food” associations can have a connection to traditional family meals, relationship experiences, cultural practices or periods of time. It begins with an individual experiencing emotional or psychological comfort when eating, potentially related to brain chemistry alterations, and thus begins an emotional attachment to a particular food. In some cases, individuals will also elicit “comfort eating” tendencies in which the comfort is obtained from an eating dynamic rather than the food itself. For example, one may find comfort in a home-cooked meal or fast food, regardless of the specific food consumed. In addition, individuals may find comfort in the process of overeating, independent of the actual food choice. Research published by Frontier in Psychology Mood, food, and obesity - PMC (nih.gov) describes the process by which mood disorders result in food-based coping and leads to obesity, contributing to the phenomenon of the vicious mood, food and obesity cycle.
An individual’s experiences often determine what their “comfort food” choices will be based on what foods have been available to them during times of extreme emotion. These foods begin to serve as a means of self-medication and this dynamic often leads to chronic emotional eating. Behavioral contagion can also play a significant role, as emotional eating tendencies are often modeled by adults and picked up by children at a young age. In addition, people often have an innate preference for sweet or savory foods, thus driving what they choose during times of stress.
Depending on the “comfort food” preferences that an individual leans toward, it is often easy to adapt a common comfort food to make it healthier. For example, if ice cream is a comfort food choice, I would encourage an individual to cut their usual portion in half and replace it with frozen fruit. If a savory food like steak or rice is preferred, I would suggest controlling the comfort food portion by including a side of vegetables. In my clinical experience, adapting eating patterns with the addition of healthy components is more successful than trying to eliminate the original comfort food completely. One of the most effective solutions for incorporating “comfort foods” in moderation is finding a meal option with built-in boundaries. Clean Eatz Kitchen Clean Eatz | Healthy Meal Plans Delivered | Cooked Meals Ready to Eat! (cleaneatzkitchen.com) provides a variety of meals with portion-controlled traditional comfort foods blended with healthy meal components.
Foods consumed during illness that provide the greatest amount of comfort are typically addressing some type of symptom. For example, individuals who are experiencing an upper respiratory infection like the flu or Covid may find chicken noodle soup made with garlic, thyme, and onion to be comforting due to the strong aroma that can stimulate smell and taste. During times of stomach illness, one may lean towards salty carbohydrates like crackers due to habit, without even recognizing the beneficial impact of salty carbs on rehydration and stomach recovery. In addition, there may be an emotional attachment to this kind of food due to life experiences during times of illness.
As described by a research study in Physiology and Behavior Is comfort food actually comforting for emotional eaters? A (moderated) mediation analysis - PubMed (nih.gov), the “tastiness” of food often promotes more comfort from consumption for emotional eaters than non-emotional eaters. In fact, individuals who don’t engage in emotional eating are more likely to eat less when under stress. However, in both situations, the “comfort eating” behavior, whether excessive or restrictive, serves as a coping mechanism. In both cases, an individual may see a reduction in stress levels. Research has shown both brain chemistry changes and placebo effect to impact the effectiveness of “comfort foods,” with the most common describing a combination of the two.
According to research published in Physiology and Behavior Exploring comfort food preferences across age and gender - ScienceDirect, males generally prefer warm, hearty foods found in meals like casseroles, steaks and soups. On the flip side, females prefer more snack-based foods as comfort including ice cream, desserts and chocolate. Having said this, life experiences, modeling from adults as children and behavioral contagion can all have a significant effect on “comfort food” choices and “comfort eating” tendencies.