Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Apart from its nutritional value, food is an enjoyable part of the human life experience and is often something that brings people together. Additionally, besides the obvious physical effects gained from our daily food intake, the food that we eat is also responsible for psychological effects, including our mood and energy levels. Have you ever thought about how your food choice is sometimes affected by how you are feeling? Research suggests that we tend to seek certain foods that give us comfort whenever we are feeling low or stressed. This article will highlight the reasons behind some of our eating behaviours and how these are connected to our psychological health and well-being.
What is comfort food?
There is a general idea that comfort foods typically include foods that are high in calories, sugars, and fats. It is characteristically labelled as ‘comfort food’ because it is often food that tastes good and makes us feel good. It gives us a temporary sense of well-being by providing a sense of warmth and reassurance when consumed. Comfort foods can also include food that somehow brings with it a sense of nostalgia, such as a food item that you used to enjoy as a child. Some examples of comfort food include pizza, burgers, chocolate, and ice cream.
Effects on the brain
A part of the brain called the lateral habenula is a region that is responsible for regulating our emotional responses. When this region is activated, it sends signals indicating that the person is experiencing emotional distress. This can include feeling sad, stressed, or anxious, and is generally experienced as an unpleasant sensation for us humans. When the lateral habenula is deactivated, it triggers the opposite reaction – a reward response. Certain foods have the possibility of rewarding us by deactivating this part of the brain by releasing feel-good hormones such as serotonin and dopamine. Thus, it makes sense that we will pursue foods that create this reward response, making us crave these types of foods. It would also make sense that we do not crave salads or other healthy foods when we are feeling stressed, as these typically do not tend to release any of the hormones mentioned above.
What’s the problem?
When enjoyed as part of a healthy, balanced diet, comfort foods do not pose a problem for our overall health. The problem with consistently craving comfort food as a way to alleviate distress is that a problematic relationship with food can develop. This is because when we consume comfort food, the same reward and pleasure centres associated with drug addiction are activated in the brain. Using food as a means of coping with stress is not different from using alcohol or other substances to relieve unpleasant emotions or mental states. Additionally, while comfort foods provide temporary relief from such mental states, some people report feeling guilt or shame in the long term, as they are often aware that such foods are not nutritionally beneficial. Lastly, overindulging in comfort food can lead to weight gain and obesity, which are often reported as stressors for some individuals, thus creating a vicious cycle.
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Pamela Borg is a counsellor who enjoys working therapeutically with adults experiencing various issues. These include general mental health and well-being, gender, sexuality, and relationship issues.