Why Food Is Comforting

Man and woman eating food together

Photo by Roo Lewis/Getty Images

 

When most people think of comfort foods, they might assume these foods are something you crave at night. And while that may be true for some people, desiring a particular comfort food could occur any time of day. At lunch, maybe you want a PB&J because it reminds you of childhood, or at breakfast you might want a buttered bagel because your dad always made it for you as a child.

Some people might crave pizza on a Friday night because it was family tradition after a high school football game while another person might want a steaming bowl of hot mac and cheese just like grandma used to make. Comfort foods are anything that brings you comfort and aren't necessarily just salty chips and chocolate bars. Some people crave nutrient-dense foods too, like a big salad with loads of farm fresh vegetables on a hot day. Everyone's definition of comfort food is different.

Additionally, when people crave comfort is different as well. Some want comfort food when they are feeling stressed while others may crave certain foods during cold weather or when they are sick. Overall, comfort foods provide a source of psychological and physiological nurturing beyond nutrition.

And while there is a brain chemical association that may prompt these feelings, it can also be nostalgic like craving for your mom's fresh-baked whole wheat bread on a winter morning. To learn more about what makes foods comforting and why we crave them, read on. We break down what there is to know about comfort food as well as why your body might be prompting you to eat these foods.

What Is Comfort Food?

Comfort food is defined as something that provides a sense of emotional comfort. Sometimes these foods tend to be loaded with calories, sugar, and carbs; however, they may also be nutrient-dense options as well. They might be foods that remind you of being a kid, like your favorite holiday dish or the breakfast your dad made you each morning before school.

The foods you seek for comfort typically taste good, have a pleasing texture (whether it's smooth or crunchy), and smell good to you. Comfort foods tend to awaken all of your senses, so the way the food looks, smells, and feels is likely important.

When you're craving comfort food, you may be experiencing some emotions, either negative or positive. And you may seek those foods to help regulate the way you're feeling. Eating your favorite comfort foods builds on the happy mood you are already experiencing or they help you feel better in some way.

While "comfort food" may seem to be loosely associated with pleasure, scientific research has proven that there is also a strong association between food and brain function. Comfort food does, in fact, trigger a chemical reaction in the brain that induces feelings of pleasure. Gratification from eating specific foods stimulates dopamine (pleasure chemical) production in the body, which in turn activates "pleasure centers in the brain."

Your Brain on Comfort Food

Besides the fact that we all need food to survive, food has so much more meaning to each of us than just nutrients and energy, says Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS, a clinical psychologist, speaker, and consultant based in New York City.

"There is a strong emotional and social connection to food," Dr. Goldman says. "Food is linked to emotions, memories, feelings, and more, and because of this, food plays an important role in our lives. We can become easily attached to certain foods because of different associations we may have with those foods."

It's also important to remember that your thoughts, emotions and behaviors are all linked to food, Dr. Goldman adds. For this reason, your eating behaviors can also impact you in a variety of ways.

Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS

The mind-body connection is real, just as the gut-brain connection is real.

— Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS

"The mind-body connection is real, just as the gut-brain connection is real," she says. "Many people eat not to just survive or because they are hungry, but for pleasure and to soothe certain emotions. We call this emotional eating, which is not always a bad thing—many of us do it at times, but when it is the only way people cope with emotions, it can become problematic."

The key is to know yourself, Dr. Goldman says. Ask yourself what purpose the food is serving right now and how do I feel (or what am I thinking) after I eat that. 

"Our brain immediately responds to gratification and pleasure, and eating is pleasurable," says Goldman. "Therefore, when we eat, it triggers the release of dopamine. This immediate boost of the feel-good chemical is in essence positively reinforcing our behavior, of eating those foods (and in the case comfort foods) by telling us that we are satisfied."

Dr. Goldman says that over time the pairing of eating, and feeling good due to the release of dopamine, becomes an association and will then increase the likelihood that we will eat that food again. This is how habits are formed. 

When We Seek Comfort Food

When it comes to seeking out comfort food, it may be different depending on your circumstance. For example, your winter go-to comfort food might be different than what you want in the summer or when you're sick or stressed. Here are some times when people commonly seek out comfort food.

During Illness

When you're sick, you might seek comfort foods that a parent or caregiver gave you when you were a child and not feeling well. This could be chicken noodle soup or a soothing cup of tea. The warmness, scent, texture, and taste can bring comfort and a sense of wellbeing.

Your brain makes a connection between physical warmth and social warmth. So, those good memories you have of grandma making her special homemade soup, may in fact be a pleasant memory because the comfort food is served warm and warm foods bring comfort.

"[Comfort food] begins with an individual experiencing emotional or psychological comfort when eating, potentially related to brain chemistry alterations, and thus begins an emotional attachment to a particular food," says Crystal Zabka-Belsky, a registered dietitian for Clean Eatz Kitchen.

In Times of Stress

There also is a direct link between mood and food. Studies have shown that eating certain foods during stress and anxiety reduces those symptoms. However, research also indicates that the relief these foods produce are short-term relief and could lead to weight management concerns. In fact, there is a link between obesity and depression and anxiety.

"Research has shown both brain chemistry changes and placebo effect to impact the effectiveness of 'comfort foods,' with the most common describing a combination of the two," says Zabka-Belsky.

But, it is important to note that not everyone responds to food and stress in the same way. Approximately 40% of people consume more calories, 40% consume fewer calories, and about 20% don't change how much they eat when stressed.

"During stressful times, [comfort foods] can transport us to happy days, events, or less stressful times. [They also may] comfort us in times of sorrow or despair," says Sharon Smalling, clinical dietitian specialist with Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. "These are foods we associate with pleasurable experiences, people we love, care about, or even miss."

Some people may even avoid certain foods when stressed while others will choose tasty foods they find pleasurable. During times of stress, it is also not uncommon to crave high fat and/or high sugar comfort foods such as fast food and snacks that bring temporary comfort.

In Cold Weather

"Good food equals good mood," says says Hayley Miller, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Persona. "Comfort food sparks joy; it brings a sense of peace into the chaos. And high-protein foods like meat have an added benefit—they contain tryptophan, an essential amino acid that your body converts into serotonin, the feel-good hormone. This cascading effect helps elevate your mood and relieve stress."

Not surprisingly, studies have shown that people with seasonal affective disorder and premenstrual syndrome find relief from foods that increase serotonin. Research also shows that cutting carbs can lead to depression due to decreased serotonin levels.

Comfort Food Preferences

Each person has different experiences in their lives, thus different foods comfort them, says Smalling. Plus, these feelings could be very culturally based.

"Though one now lives in the U.S., perhaps your comfort foods are from your Italian family influence," she adds. "[They also could be from] a place where you lived as a child that had a tremendous positive impact on your life."

A poll of 2,000 Americans showed that the top five most loved comfort foods are pizza, burgers, ice cream, french fries, and mac and cheese. In addition, the top five comfort snack foods are chocolate, chips, cookies, french pancakes, and candy.

People participating in the poll also were asked what they looked for in comfort food. The number one thing was food that tasted great, followed by indulgence, easy to make, and sweetness.

"Since comfort is subjective, foods that bring that sense of comfort differ from person to person," says Miller. "It's the experience that initiates the desire to be comforted, and not everyone experiences the same thing, so comfort foods differ from one person to the next."

A Word From Verywell

Overall, food is fuel and necessary for life. But foods can be comforting too, especially when you are cold, sick, stressed, or just feeling nostalgic. During those times, it's OK to make yourself a big bowl of chicken noodle soup or eat a slice of fresh baked bread.

However, if you find that you cannot get through a stressful situation without a particular comfort food or if these foods are impacting your eating patterns in a negative way, you may want to talk to a healthcare provider or a mental health professional. Restricting food, binge eating, or labeling foods as bad, could be a sign of disordered eating.

If you or a loved one are coping with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline for support at 1-800-931-2237

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the best comfort food when you are sick?

    Curcumin, an active property in turmeric, has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, which can help with upper respiratory infections. Try some turmeric tea or add some powder to your favorite soup.

  • How does comfort food affect your stress levels?

    Brain chemicals, specifically serotonin, have an impact on your stress levels. For this reason, foods that have tryptophan can increase serotonin levels after you eat them. Foods also can reduce stress levels by reminding you of when someone cared for you through food.

  • How do you comfort yourself without food?

    Try self-care rituals to soothe yourself without food. This could be practicing mindfulness, meditating, journaling, deep breathing, or visualization. Incorporate the activities that work for you into your daily life.

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7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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