Comfort foods are typically energy-dense, high-fat, and sweet, such as chocolate, ice cream, and French fries. They provide pleasure or temporarily make us feel better. Here are five factors that can contribute to comfort eating:
1. Feel good. Eating food high in fat, sugar or salt activates the brain’s reward system. For example, chocolate has a strong effect on mood, generally increasing pleasant feelings and reducing tension.
Highly palatable foods activate the same brain regions of reward and pleasure that are active in drug addiction. Studies of obese individuals show that brain areas associated with drug reward are activated by anticipation and receipt of highly palatable foods (Avena et al., 2012).
2. Self-medication. There seems to be a consistent connection between negative emotions and unhealthy foods, a phenomenon called emotional eating. In a bad mood, people are drawn to unhealthy foods (sugary and fatty) as a coping mechanism. In contrast, people in a positive mood tend to choose healthy foods (Gardner et al., 2014).
However, one study (Mann, 2015) found that although the comfort foods provide some relief from negative moods, so do other foods or even receiving no food at all. Furthermore, comfort foods can put you in bad a mood (Hendy, 2012). In fact, the link between consumption of comfort foods and increased negative moods (perhaps due to guilt or the crash after a high-carb meal) lasted for two days.
3. The need to belong. We tend to associate certain foods with members of our family, social gatherings, and people taking care of us, such as Thanksgiving holidays with family. When we feel lonely, we crave these foods to give us comfort and security. That is, comfort food’s power may lie primarily in the associations it calls to mind, memories of secure attachment.
For example, for a college student away from home for the first time, comfort foods may serve as a reminder of family or friends in times of stress or isolation. Evidence showed that people with positive family relationships were more likely than others to reach for comforting foods on the days that they felt lonely (Jordan et a., 2015).
4. Nostalgic eating. There is a strong link between scents and emotional memory. The smell of foods can evoke vivid and detailed emotional memories of our past (Reid, et al., 2014). Our learning history predisposes us to enjoy certain foods.
For example, the scent of deep-fried corn dogs may remind one childhood summers at the state fair. Because odor-evoked memories tend to be positive, the smell improves mood and produces feelings of social connection.
5. Special occasions. We tend to go for special, often unhealthy, foods on celebratory occasions, like birthdays or Thanksgiving. The excuse reflects an underlying dilemma. From a momentary perspective, indulgence is the best choice; but from a long-term perspective, healthy eating is the best choice.
The ideal solution is to somehow do both. This is impossible, except in one situation. If the situation can be framed as the “last time,” then the dilemma disappears, since the person can say to herself that a new and better life will begin tomorrow.
Avena, N. M., Gold, J. A., Kroll, C., & Gold, M. S. (2012). Further developments in the neurobiology of food and addiction: Update on the state of the science. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 28(4), 341-343.
Gardner, Meryl P., et al. (2014), Better moods for better eating?: How mood influences food choice. Journal of Consumer Psychology. Vol 24, issue 3, pages 320-335.
Hendy H (2012), Which comes first in food–mood relationships, foods or moods? Volume 58, Issue 2, Pages 771–775.
Jordan D. Troisi, Shira Gabriel, Jaye L. Derrick, Alyssa Geisler. Threatened belonging and preference for comfort food among the securely attached. Appetite, 2015; 90: 58.
Mann, Tracy (2015). Secrets from the eating lab: the science weight loss, the myth of willpower, and why you should never diet again. Harper Wave.
Reid, C.A.; Green, J.D.; Wildschut, T.; Sedikides, C. Scent-evoked nostalgia (2015). Memory, 23, 157–166.