The Psychology Behind Why We Crave Comfort Foods

Last Update on December 1, 2023 : Published on December 2, 2023

Whenever I’m sad, I eat a bark of chocolate. When I’m worried, I cook myself some soup. And when I’m stressed, I crave pizza. This is a pattern that I began to notice when I was in therapy and when I mentioned this to my therapist, she offered me an explanation on comfort foods. 

Comfort foods are like a warm hug for our souls. They’re those dishes and meals that wrap us in nostalgia, reminding us of home, love, and simpler times. Think of your grandmother’s casserole. Comfort foods are not just about the taste; it’s a feeling — a comforting, reassuring feeling that everything will be alright. 

Now, many people get confused. When I say comfort food, some think of late-night cravings, but it’s not that. There’s a difference between craving unhealthy food and craving comfort food. When we crave comfort food, we crave warmth and reassurance. Now, the definition of comfort food can vary from person to person. In any case, comfort food is what gives you psychological and physiological comfort that goes beyond nutrition. 

So, ready to learn the psychology behind comfort food? Keep reading to see how your brain reacts to comfort food during stressful times. 

The Science Behind Comfort Foods

The Science Behind Comfort Foods

Ever wonder why a bowl of creamy tomato soup feels like a cozy blanket for your mind? Research suggests that comfort foods trigger the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain, like serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals create a sense of happiness and calm. Other studies have shown that comfort foods — often with their fats and carbs — may have the ability to soothe stress. 

In a recent discovery, scientists have found a brain molecule — Proenkephalin — which might play a role in triggering comfort food cravings during stress. Proenkephalin, located in the hypothalamus, might be connected to changes in the brain that lead to emotional overeating.

“We don’t always eat because we are hungry and we have certain physical needs. Whenever we get stressed or feel some threat, it can also trigger our eating motivation,” said Sora Shin about their research in a paper published in Nature Communications.

Coming on to the psychological aspects of craving comfort foods, Dr. Rachel Goldman says that we humans have a strong emotional and social connection to food. Not only is food linked to our emotions, memories, and feelings, but it plays a role in our social attachments too. 

Just like our mind-body connection is valid, our gut-brain connection is important as well. We eat, not to survive, but to soothe ourselves and our emotions. This is emotional eating, and while it’s not bad, it can quickly turn problematic when it becomes the only way you use to cope with your emotions. 

But, When Do We Seek Comfort Food The Most?

Life is already a maze of unpredictable events, and that’s when our cravings for comfort food kick in. Comfort foods are not just reserved for gloomy days. We might find ourselves reaching for that familiar taste when we’re stressed at work, celebrating a success, or even during a cozy movie night. 

The key is to be self-aware and to know when it’s a genuine need for comfort and when it’s just a habit. 

Healthy Alternatives for Comfort During Stress

Healthy Alternatives for Comfort During Stress

Now, how about giving a healthy twist to our comfort cravings? Instead of opening that tub of ice cream, consider eating a bowl of Greek yogurt with honey and berries. How about swapping out your usual fries for sweet potato wedges, or opting for whole-grain options in your favorite recipes? 

Experiment with different herbs and spices to create flavor without adding to the calories. I would recommend using turmeric, garlic, and ginger in your meals not only to enhance the taste of the food but to also bring anti-inflammatory benefits to your meals. It’d be like upgrading your comfort foods to a more VIP experience for your taste buds and your overall well-being. 

And I won’t forget my personal recommendation — Dark Chocolate! Dark chocolate isn’t just delicious but contains antioxidants that can boost your mood. So, next time you’re tempted to reach for that candy bar, consider a piece of quality dark chocolate instead.

Wrapping Up… 

Life is like a box of chocolates, and I agree with this Forrest Gump quote. There are various experiences we go through in our lives that can change our relationship with food. When it comes to navigating life, comfort food plays a major role. It not only connects us to our roots and culture but often offers solace during stressful times. 

Knowing the psychology behind comfort food cravings can help you make healthier choices without sacrificing the comfort you seek. Take a mindful approach to comfort cravings! 

Here’s to finding comfort in every soulful bite that nourishes your heart, body, and soul. 

Did you find this article helpful? What are your favorite comfort foods? Let me know your answers in the comments box below. We’re always happy to hear from you! 

Take Care!

About The Author

Swarnakshi Sharma
Swarnakshi Sharma

Swarnakshi is a content writer at Calm sage, who believes in a healthier lifestyle for mind and body. A fighter and survivor of depression, she strives to reach and help spread awareness on ending the stigma surrounding mental health issues. A spiritual person at heart, she believes in destiny and the power of Self. She is an avid reader and writer and likes to spend her free time baking and learning about world cultures.

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