How Our Brains and Our Bellies Collaborate to Comfort Us
We know you’re watching your waistline. Calorie count and nutritional content matter to you. You’re always oh so disciplined and dedicated to eating healthy until that comfort food comes calling.
There’s nothing quite like being wrapped in the warm, cheesy, doughy security blanket of your favorite comfort food. What makes it so special that we’re willing to forfeit a week’s worth of progress on the scale?
When the doldrums hit, why do we run to dark chocolate? What is it about Mom that has you craving mashed potatoes?
Turns out there are several reasons rooted in science and sociology.
What Constitutes Comfort Food?
When it comes down to it, comfort food is (surprise!) comforting to you when you eat it. That makes comfort food a matter of opinion and personal context, but there’s some commonality in what we all crave.
Dishes that are often identified as comforting usually consist of either:
- High carb
- High sugar
- High fatty acid
French fries, cheeseburgers, ice cream, candy, and chocolate, common comfort choices, all fit that nutrient profile.
Other highly desired dishes are characterized as:
Since pizza and mac and cheese consistently make it to the top of comfort foods favorites lists, bread, cheese, and pasta are contenders for components of comfort.
But what about those dishes that delight us for other reasons? Surprisingly our idea of comfort can have little to do with taste.
Maybe rich pasta sauces, cheesy filling, and creamy potatoes are not your thing (we’re calling the cops), but chances are there’s a food that gets you feeling some type of way, and it all has to do with our brains.
Chemicals that Connect to Comfort Food
We all react to food whether it’s comforting or not. Our brains are wired to reward us for fueling our bodies, so when we eat, we feel good. This is due to a naturally occurring chemical in our system, dopamine.
Dopamine is known as the “feel good” hormone, and science proves it is released when we experience a good meal. This dopamine release was important from an evolutionary standpoint because it encouraged our ancestors to eat foods necessary for survival.
Serotonin is another one of those happiness hormones, 95% of which is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, furthering the connection between what we munch and our mood.
The act of eating, in general, can bring joy, and when it’s connected to a few other aspects, well, you’ve got yourself a bonafide comfort food.
Nostalgia and Pride
Sometimes the most powerful component of comfort food is the memory it evokes. In many cultures, food is connected to traditions and special holidays. Those are often occurrences we associate with joy and loved ones.
Our brains make connections between moments we recall fondly and the sensory stimuli during those moments. Flavors and smells of food can be a vehicle taking us back.
Food can become a display of our heritage. If you’ve ever felt the accomplishment of recreating your great-grandmother’s boliche or realized you’ve perfected the secret family sauce, you know that pride can be derived from food.
Food represents our lineage, history, nation of origin, and family. Those things matter, so our mind makes that connection, and it adds to the positive feeling from the food.
Connecting With Others
Just like we connect food with special traditions and holidays, food is also often the center of our social gatherings.
We get together with colleagues for apps and drinks after work. We have friends over to share a meal in our homes. We tailgate at sporting events, snack at book clubs, and enjoy popcorn and sodas at the movies.
Food is often a part of interacting and enjoying each other’s company.
Comfort Food? Yes, Chef
Wanna whip up a batch of bliss? When the comfort cravings kick in, here are some tips for
As previously noted, comfort has a different context for everyone. Still, you can follow some general rules to be sure whatever food you’re going for is comforting to your feelings and delicious to your tastebuds.
For a trophy comfort food:
- Think about balancing the five basic tastes: sweet, salt, bitter, sour, and umami.
- Choose fresh, quality ingredients.
- Create flavor layers with herbs and spices.
- Taste along the way! Check-in on that flavor while you’re cooking.
- Make the presentation worthy of a cherished recipe. Serve it in a special dish, add garnishes, and use the good silverware.
Also, consider some of the best kitchen gadgets to help you get your comfort food fix:
- Instapot-For comfort food fast
- Slow cooker-Fill your house with the smell of simmering deliciousness
- Popcorn maker-Movie night!
- Electric mixer-Mashed potato must have
- Air fryer-Experience less guilt without the deep fryer
- Ice cream maker-Try making your favorite flavors
Sometimes it’s okay to choose comfort over calorie count; science and sociology say so.