The Truth About Comfort Food

When the going gets rough, who doesn’t crave a cheesy slice of pizza or a warm bowl of ramen? Especially these days! Since the start of the pandemic, 1 in 4 people report turning to comfort food more often, according to a recent International Food Information Council survey. But how comforting is comfort food, really?

Maybe not that much, says a new British Journal of Health Psychology study. To see how a person’s snacking choices impacted their frame of mind, researchers at the University of Tasmania in Australia tracked the diets and moods of 140 volunteers. After 2 weeks, they found that those who self-soothed with unhealthy snacks got a tiny mood boost, but only for about an hour. For the next 2 hours after that, their outlooks progressively darkened. 

On the flip side, people who grabbed healthy snacks experienced a small dip for the next hour, but then their moods improved dramatically.

What is comfort food? “We tend to search for comfort in foods that we consumed, or were given to us, when we were young,” says Charles Spence, M.A., Ph.D., a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford in England and author of Sensehacking: How to Use the Power of Your Senses for Happier, Healthier Living. So while a warm brownie may be one person’s feel-good food, grilled cheese may do the trick for someone else. 

Either way, comfort foods almost always have one thing in common. They’re loaded with unhealthy ingredients, like saturated fat, refined carbs, or salt, that turn on pleasure centers in the brain. “When we experience these rewarding or pleasurable sensations, we quickly associate them with the things that led to the experience,” says Stefania Franja, lead researcher of the British Journal of Psychology study and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tasmania. Then, next time you’re feeling crummy, your brain remembers that those foods helped you feel better, even if it was only for a little while.

Why do comfort foods backfire? Blame it on all those refined carbs and sugar. “Consuming carbohydrates triggers insulin, which in turn stimulates serotonin, one of the key “happy” neurotransmitters,” says Franja. “Although sugary foods are packed with simple carbohydrates, it is the complex carbohydrates in fruits and vegetables that provide a longer-lasting positive effect on mood due to their slower release of glucose.” 

This may explain why the study volunteers who snacked on refined carb-filled baked goods, candy, chips, and fast food only got a quick bump, while those who nibbled on fruits, veggies, dairy products, and nuts enjoyed a prolonged lift. 

Then there’s another reason these healthy eats do good things for your spirits. They’re loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that nourish the brain, says Franja.

Next time you’re seeking that warm fuzzy feeling, try grabbing a healthy snack your mom or another loved one may have given you—or opt for one of these healthy foods that might improve your mood.  You can also try whipping up a lighter version of your favorite comfort food. 

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