Do Comfort Foods Really Comfort?

Is there a biological basis behind food cravings?

Posted Oct 25, 2015

“Comfort Food.” The magazine title caught my eye as I waited at the supermarket checkout line.  The sleek cover promised more than 100 recipes of warm and cozy foods and impulsively, I bought the magazine hoping the recipes therein would make my walk home on this chilly, windy day in early fall more ‘comfortable.’  This week’s drop in temperature and the late sunrises and early sunsets was a preview of the worse to come, i.e. winter.  There was no way of holding back the seasonal changes that by December would have everyone longing for spring.

Pictures of the recipes were mouth-watering and felt right for this time of year: corn pudding, sweet potato biscuits, scalloped potatoes swimming in heavy cream, potato-onion pancakes glistening with oil, and a two-page spread of variations on mashed potatoes. Yum. There were pictures of some composed salads but they seemed out of place, as if they snuck their way in from a summer publication.  The main courses were updated versions of comfort foods we have been eating for decades: Shepherd’s Pie, lasagna with lots of sausage and cheese and a kid-friendly casserole that featured pepperoni, ground beef, pasta, pizza tomato sauce and, of course, mozzarella cheese.   Oh, and the desserts, including the ‘whoopie pie’ cake featured on the cover that would cause a diabetic to reach for insulin just by reading the ingredient list.

The curious thing about the recipes is how seasonal they are. If this magazine appeared in June, it might be disregarded. Who wants to eat a pepperoni, ground beef, pasta, pizza tomato sauce and cheese dish when the temperature is balmy, the sky blue, and the sun does not set until almost time for the 9pm news?  Who wants to bake biscuits or fry potato pancakes when it is so much nicer to grill vegetables and freshly caught fish? The beautifully pictured sweet potato cranberry cake that would go well with a cup of hot tea on a cold night would have been out of place alongside freshly cut watermelon slices and a bowl of blueberries.  And yet, now, in regions of the U.S. where fall is a decidedly different season than summer, comfort foods seem right.  

Before the days of central heating in the home and cars with heaters, it made sense to eat hefty, hearty meals because presumably the body needed those extra calories to keep warm. And it still makes sense for those who work in a physically demanding occupation outdoors to eat heavy meals in cold weather.  But do we who work and live in climate controlled environments, who may endure the cold only for relatively brief periods, and do not daily break rocks in a quarry or fell trees, need calorie-laden comfort foods?

Yet these foods are appealing. They are part of a safe-at-home and protected from the elements package. We come in from the wind, rain, snow and cold relax into a brightly lit warm indoors, give ourselves permission to stay inside, and even allow ourselves to become a couch potato for the evening or a weekend afternoon. And part of this package is eating slowly cooked foods whose delectable odors increase our appetites.  Sometimes the only part of this package is the food. When we arrive home we have to face the reality of doing laundry, paying bills, getting the kids to finish their homework, calling a parent, or finishing up work from work.  We may not be able to curl up on the couch with the cat or sit in front of the fireplace, but we can still eat a comfort meal. 

And regardless of whether we need to eat more calories to prepare our bodies for the cold that lies ahead, eating braised pork with cheesy grits, chili with beans, and sausage polenta does comfort. (These recipes were also in the magazine.) In part, these foods do so because they cannot be eaten on the run or consumed without noticing what we are eating. These foods demand attention; they are complex, filled with a multitude of ingredients that should be savored separately as well as in combination. They are hot so they cannot be gulped unless we want to risk a burnt tongue or become the recipient of a Heimlich maneuver. So when eating these foods, we pay attention to the comfort their taste and texture are giving us. We dine rather than just eat. And in doing so, perhaps become aware of the warmth and coziness surrounding us as we eat.

And if we eat some of the carbohydrate-based comfort foods we will feel soothed and relaxed because our brains will be producing more serotonin.  This brain chemical made when we eat starchy or sweet carbohydrate, with little or no protein, is less active during the dark seasons of the year leaving us agitated, tense, unsettled and irritable.  The lack of enough serotonin makes it harder to deal with stress, whether from being overworked or worried that the roof will collapse from too much snow. Carbohydrate-based comfort foods soothe us by indirectly making serotonin and also leave us feeling comfortably satiated. We finish our meal, mentally patting our tummies and saying, “I am full... and wasn’t that delicious?”

However, a caveat is necessary here:  These recipes, and others for comfort foods that can be found on the Internet and other cooking magazines, may have copious quantities of fat. If portion sizes are kept small, then the recipes will not cause ‘scale discomfort.’ But some, mostly desserts that contain 35 or 40 grams of fat per serving, are too caloric to be part of a daily diet regardless of what the weather is like outside. Save them as a treat after shoveling snow for hours or splitting logs for firewood.