Comfort Food

March 1, 2015 - Food that is associated with fond memories brings back happiness and comfort when we see, smell, and enjoy these treats years later. 

Celebrated chef Wolfgang Puck puts it this way: “I grew up in Austria, and for me real comfort food is Wiener Schnitzel. Wiener Schnitzel and mashed potatoes because it reminds me of my youth and it feels very comforting.”

Many of us remember Mom’s cooking and special recipes, particularly at holiday and celebration times.

The essence of comfort food is that it cheers us up. As infants and youngsters we all learn or become habituated to certain types of foods. Our taste buds and appetites are directed in certain ways and we tend to stick to that pattern for the rest of our lives.

Author and poet Maya Angelou remembered it this way: “The best comfort food will always be greens, cornbread and fried chicken.”

These comfortable eating habits are hard to change but should be modified when greater motivations are present. A change in health status (such as a heart attack, diabetes, high blood pressure or needing to lose weight for medical reasons) should also be a diet changer.

In a recent poll the most frequently named comfort foods in America were apple pie, baked beans, beef stew, chicken soup, fried chicken, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, meatloaf, pot roast, pudding (chocolate or tapioca), pumpkin pie, tomato soup, and tuna casserole. Most of these foods require little chewing and remind us of our childhood when easy-to-eat foods were the mainstay of our diets. Traditionally, childhood mealtimes were good times when we gathered, socialized, had positive feedback and filled our bellies.

Food likings might also be indicative of certain personality traits. One food psychologist says: “Men and women crave different foods. While women tend to yearn for sweet, indulgent foods like chocolate, men usually seek hot dishes like pizza. Such preferences may reveal personality traits creating a synergy between person and food. For instance, men are more likely than women to find steak comforting, as it reinforces a traditional macho personality.”

There are real physiological reasons for the strong association between food and comfort. The connection between our stomachs and our brains is complex. There are at least two hormones released by the stomach and digestive tract when we fill up with food. Leptin and cholecystokinin released by the stomach and gall bladder, respectively, enter the blood stream and communicate with the brain signally that our appetite is being satiated.

This good feeling adds to the unconscious desire to consume foods and make ourselves comfortable. Just watch a baby being comforted as he/she is being fed, changed, wrapped, and encouraged to nap. These activities are part of the cycle of growing up. Sadly, we lose the opportunity to nap after every meal as we grow up.

There is a physiological term, “post prandial alkalosis,” which may also explain some of the desire to sleep after eating. This physiological feeling of being full and satiated—along with an overall good mood after a holiday or celebratory meal—reinforces our desire to return to comfort foods which, in turn, increases our desire to consume more comfort food. This cycle based on mental and physical reinforcement is powerful, hard to break, and may be at the root of some of our nation’s obesity problems.

Food doesn’t just sustain us nutritionally by providing necessary proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins. Food nourishes us emotionally also. For instance, in preparing for hurricane season in southwest Florida, we follow recommendations for such staples as bottled water. But many folks add comfort foods such as packaged cookies, candy bars or sweetened cereals. The potential stress of the storm needs relief with comfortable, portable, “instant” food.

There are some commonly held beliefs about comfort food which have recently been disproven. The psychology behind comfort food is more complicated than you might think. Research has shown that comfort foods are consumed any time people are experiencing extremes in emotion—either up or down moods. Festive reunions with family and friends can justify overindulgence in people’s minds. According to a professor of psychology at Sewanee University, “There’s a broad idea (in psychology) that people can feel a sense of connection to things that aren’t actually people. Comfort food does this trick for us. It seems to operate in a way that makes people feel socially connected.”

Comfort food can be an antidote for loneliness. Connecting mentally with earlier better times is the premise of “chicken soup for the soul.” An experiment performed at Sewanee University screened student subjects to see if chicken noodle soup was a preexisting comfort food. About half of the subject students agreed that chicken soup made them feel comfortable and the other half were neutral to this soup. Then both groups were served chicken soup and asked to do some word association to assess their spirits. The chicken soup “positive” group had more of a sense of belonging, and picked more words out of a list which signaled strong interpersonal relationships than the “neutral” chicken soup group.

The amount of comfort food we need to be happy has also been studied. As it turns out, we need far less than we usually consume in order to be satisfied. Being aware of portion size is one of the common traits of people who live to be 100, as shown in the Blue Zones Study which is now being embraced in Southwest Florida.

A recent book, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, observes that not being exposed to excessive portions removes much of the desire and behavior to overeat. For instance, if you are offered just two Hershey’s kisses instead of a handful of them, that can cause you to reshape your expectations and be content with the smaller portion. I suspect just the opposite is true with buffets, where the strong temptation is to consume excessively.

Security, reward, and connectedness are three feelings which capture our unconscious reasons to stay connected to comfort foods. Ask almost everyone what some of their favorite comfort foods are, and the examples they share will relate to these warm feelings.

So the next time you need a lift, feel lonely, or unhappy, consider comforting yourself with and connecting to the security of your favorite comfort food. Go ahead, enjoy that piece of chocolate cake. (Just watch the portion size!)


Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.