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Food is supposed to make us feel good — content, fulfilled, connected. It’s meant to comfort us physically by easing hunger and bringing satisfaction, and emotionally by bonding us to others as we share in the experience of a meal.
It works that way from the start, when as babies we fill our bellies blissfully in the arms of a nurturing caregiver. There is no guilt involved then. But somewhere along the road to adulthood, the notion of comfort food takes a wrong turn — it becomes something we crave, even obsess over, but ultimately feel bad about eating. It comes with a moral judgment — often described as “sinful.” We are being “good” when we avoid it. That mind-set is so ingrained in our culture it can be tough to break away, but doing so frees you to look at comfort food in a new way and can help you ultimately to enjoy it healthfully.
So much of what makes a food comforting has to do with the set of experiences, memories and associations around eating it. It’s an edible connection with feeling happy and carefree, having a sense of belonging, and being cared for.
Because of that, it is different for every person. One man’s chicken soup is another’s bibimbap. Buttery, fragrant cinnamon toast gives me the warm fuzzies because my grandmother would make it for me as a child whenever I was home sick from school. For someone who grew up in the South, comfort food might be the sweet potato casserole their mom cooked for holiday dinner. For a New Englander, it could be the clam chowder they ate dockside as a kid every summer vacation. Someone from an Italian family might find solace in a simmering Sunday sauce, whereas chicken and rice could call out to someone with Dominican roots. What you count as comfort food also depends on your gender, with women generally preferring snack foods such as chocolate and ice cream, and men yearning for warm, hearty meals such as casseroles and steak dinners.
There is chemistry involved, too — foods with concentrated carbohydrates, such as sweets and grains, can trigger the body’s production of serotonin, which provides a feeling of calm and well-being. And fatty foods have been shown to light up the reward centers in the brain, reducing feelings of stress and improving mood. The problem is that while these chemical changes once served us biologically by motivating us to seek hard-to-find, calorie-rich foods important to our survival, now these foods are everywhere we turn, so we wind up having to fight our impulses to avoid overeating them.