The psychology of comfort foods: Why we crave certain meals when we're stressed or sad

Psychology of comfort foods
Experts say that comfort foods may improve mood for an hour or two after consuming them. (Illustration by Ibrahim Rayintakath for Yahoo News)

During a bout of the blues or just after a long, stressful day, many of us turn to the pantry, refrigerator or fast food for a tasty, pick-me-up meal that seems to help ease anxiety and soothe heartaches.

The foods we often crave in these times are comfort foods, which are usually high in mood-boosting carbohydrates and sugar, depending on your cravings preferences. These foods trigger the brain’s pleasure centers and reward system, which boosts your mood short-term.

Registered dietitian Kate Ingram explains, telling Yahoo Life: “Research is mixed, but it looks like comfort foods — particularly highly processed foods — may improve mood for an hour or two after consumption. This may be due to the release of dopamine and other feel-good hormones in our brain.”

The term “comfort food” first appeared in a 1966 article in the Palm Beach Post newspaper, but people were likely eating chocolate after a heartbreak long before. The word was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1997. No matter how it’s defined, the satisfaction you get when enjoying your favorite foods is undeniable.

What else makes something a comfort food? One reason we turn to these foods are the associations we have with them, says Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Mass General Hospital and author of the forthcoming book, Calm Your Mind With Food.

“Memories play a huge part in recollections of food and food associations and books have been written about this,” Naidoo tells Yahoo Life. “Unlike other species, humans can make choices and decisions around the foods they eat, and by doing so, this naturally taps into our psychological makeup.”

For Naidoo, her go-to comfort food is “my beloved late grandmother’s golden chai recipe that she taught me to prepare — it always gives me that warm and fuzzy hug-like feeling,” she says. “For someone else it may be the delicious aroma of hot chocolate around the holidays or the first snowfall.”

How does eating comfort foods affect your health?

Aside from the initial mood boost we might feel, most comfort foods aren’t good for us, says Naidoo. “While the short-term effects may feel positive, the long-term physical and mental effects are seldom positive — unless your comfort food is broccoli.”

Naidoo says this goes further than just a “sugar high” and the subsequent crash.

“Foods high in simple carbohydrates like pasta, donuts, pastries, breads and candy increase insulin levels and allow more tryptophan — the natural amino acid building block for serotonin — to enter the brain, where it is converted to serotonin,” Naidoo explains. “Many people refer to serotonin as the ’happiness hormone.’ Initially, there is a ‘calming’ effect of serotonin, which can be experienced within 30 minutes or less after eating these foods.”

But that boost of happiness has a price, Naidoo notes, saying, “In the short term they may make you feel happy, and you’re wondering why this would be bad. Unfortunately, by also causing a blood sugar spike, these levels over time are associated with brain atrophy and dementia — in other words, a direct impact on brain cells. This may be one of the reasons simple carbohydrates are so addictive.”

Ingram echoes this, saying, “Because comfort foods are often high-fat, high-sugar, low-nutrient foods, we have to think about the long-term consequences of this type of comfort. While it is certainly okay to have these foods once in a while, a steady intake is linked with long-term health risks like heart disease, diabetes and obesity.”

In terms of how comfort foods affect your brain and mental well-being, Naidoo says that it really depends on what foods you’re craving and how often you’re eating them, says Naidoo. “Let’s be honest, most people are not selecting cauliflower here as a comfort food,” she says.

It’s OK to indulge when you’re feeling down

That said, you don’t have to give up your favorite comfort foods or feel bad about eating them on occasion. “I prefer not to create hard and fast rules as they are not sustainable for improved mental well-being,” says Naidoo. “Shaming people over their food choices does not support their overall mental health and makes them feel worse.”

She says that while it’s better to avoid regularly eating highly processed foods, denying yourself completely can also do some harm.

“I try to remind my clients about course correcting at the next meal or opportunity and not staying in the fast food lane, for example,” Naidoo says. “In other words, if you enjoy a slice of cake on your birthday, I would much rather you ate that and moved back to your healthier eating the next day than deny yourself — then crave it and next find yourself eating the entire cake. I’ve seen it happen.”