February 1, 2017

Comfort Foods: Why They Are Not Actually “Comforting” You

Written by Rachel Eddins

comfort foods aren't comforting you

Researchers at the University of Illinois suggest that most of us crave comfort food when we want to reward ourselves for a job well done.

We might turn to comfort foods for other reasons—a fight with someone close to us, a bad day, even an exceptionally good day—but the psychology behind comfort food is consistent: we seek out foods we link with warm memories of the past in exchange for an emotional boost.

Why do we crave certain comfort foods?

In the past, it was often assumed that cravings resulted from the body’s awareness of its own deficiencies. For example, we thought that if we craved a candy bar, we must be running low on sugar.


Although foods do have the ability to affect us physiologically, altering levels of different brain chemicals and changing our mood, our cravings are not a barometer of our bodies’ particular needs. Though, if we are accustomed to eating a large amount of sugar, we may naturally crave a higher amount, for example, until we balance our bodies nutritionally.

Cravings are psychologically rooted

The truth is that our cravings are more psychologically rooted. Cravings might result from an emotional need, a certain smell, or how we’ve conditioned ourselves to deal with certain situations. Essentially, a craving for comfort foods can be emotionally driven and also become a habit over time.

If we associate lasagna with the safety and warmth of a beloved grandmother, it makes sense that we might begin to crave lasagna—and the sense of safety accompanying the dish—when we’re feeling financially insecure or unsure of our partners’ feelings toward us.

If we regularly head out for ice cream when we experience stress, our bodies become conditioned to expect the same method of coping when stress rears its head again.

Interestingly, University of Illinois researchers recently found that in general, men and women crave different comfort foods. For men, warm, prepared foods like steak and soup often hit the spot. Women often crave sugar and foods that don’t require any work or preparation—candy, ice cream, and other sweets.

Comfort foods don’t address our true needs

A few months ago, Alejandra went back to school to finish her degree. She was excited about the challenge and changes that returning to her studies would bring into her life, but she didn’t anticipate the stress.

It feels like there isn’t enough time in the day to do all that’s required of her at school. On top of that, she’s working a part-time job to stay afloat.

Alejandra started turning to old favorites during mealtime to alleviate her stress. Sometimes when she has procrastinated too long on a paper for school, she eats ice cream out of the tub to feel better. She’s eating more and more comfort food, but seems to be feeling worse and worse.

Why isn’t comfort food really all that comforting?

1. Most comfort food doesn’t have a lot of nutritional value.

It’s easy to see why certain foods have been stamped with the “comfort” label—they’re real and tangible pleasures that come in a good-tasting, good-smelling package. Maybe they remind you of home. In truth, when you turn to food to feel comforted, it’s rarely for the nutrients; most often, comfort food appears on your plate when you’re in need of an emotional boost. You likely associate emotional boosts with a treat—something you don’t have all the time, like cookies, cake, and ice cream. Or something you had as a child, which brings up memories and feelings of being comforted and soothed.

2. A better mood is often misattributed to food.

A recent study found that while in a bad mood, participants who ate comfort food and participants who ate other foods described feeling better after a few minutes. In fact, eating comfort foods and eating no food at all wielded the same emotional results. While comfort food might sound comforting before you eat, it doesn’t do much in the long term.

It’s possible that the comfort you feel after eating actually results from passing time. Your behavior around eating food, like dressing up to go to a restaurant and/or spending quality time with friends, might also explain the misunderstanding.

3. Eating comfort food can distract you from dealing with negative feelings.

Negative feelings are inherently painful. It makes sense that you wouldn’t hesitate to turn to an instant and convenient fix. Unfortunately, food isn’t a very meaningful solution. Regularly turning to food to distract yourself from difficult emotions is like throwing dirt over a bed of weeds, instead of taking them out by the roots.

If you find yourself returning over and over again to the refrigerator when you’re not really hungry, ask yourself what’s bothering you. The question might allow you to address important trends in your life.

4. Impulsive comfort eating can lead you to feel guilty later.

If you’re feeling low, it’s easy to give yourself a break and take the “guilty” out of “guilty pleasure foods.” “I deserve this,” you might say. While you certainly do deserve some self-compassion during a difficult time, eating a lot of unhealthy food could make you feel worse about your situation, once you’re done eating.

This is especially true if you’re struggling with your body image or physical health, and are working hard to eat better foods. There are more effective ways of showing yourself some love.

What is comforting?

Stressed and need a boost? Try accessing what’s comforting about comfort foods. If your comfort food of choice reminds you of home, look through old family photos, or call a favorite friend or family member.

Food can sometimes appear comforting because you’re giving yourself “you” time; make a little time to do something you really enjoy instead. You can also try keeping healthier snacks on hand, or putting a healthy twist on favorite comfort foods like pizza and mac-and-cheese.

Comfort foods aren’t bad in moderation, but if you’re worried that emotional eating is becoming a pattern, it might be time to think about taking steps toward a healthier relationship with food.

How can we keep our comfort foods in balance?

In and of itself, comfort food is not something bad we should feel guilty about eating. Because our cravings are unrelated to the nutritional value of a certain food, however, we can really benefit from taking note of when and how often we indulge them.

One method for keeping comfort foods in balance is using healthier ingredients. By doing this, we can experience all the wonderful memories associated with a food and nourish our bodies at the same time.

Our complex brains and bodies are happiest when provided with a variety of different nutrients. Like many other things, too much of a good comfort food isn’t always a good thing—it can chemically affect our mood in a way that doesn’t feel good for us.

Adding other foods into our diet can make a big difference and make our sweeter cravings a fun treat and not rewards for doing something well or having a hard day – this hurts you in the long run.

Emotional eating is understandable—food can be a powerful tool physiologically and psychologically to feel better. It’s okay to have cookies or a bowl of ice cream when you’re emotionally hungry some of the time, but in the long run, turning to our comfort foods alone as a solution can leave tough areas in our life unresolved. In fact, you may miss out on what it is you really need, which can perpetuate the problem.

Identify common emotional needs.

Replace comfort foods with self-care

In the same way our bodies benefit from a balanced diet, we can really tackle big emotional problems best by nourishing ourselves in different ways. Talking about a problem with someone else, spending a few minutes problem-solving on our own, or simply taking some personal time to do something we enjoy can help us feel much better about something that’s bothering us.

When you are feeling stressed, take a moment to tune in and identify what you are really feeling. Once you have identified where your stress is coming from and what you are feeling in response, you can ask yourself, “what do I really need right now?”

Certain emotions tell us we need different things. For example, anger might indicate that you need to say no, or set a boundary. Sadness might indicate that you need to let go, grieve, and seek comfort in connection.

Once you’ve identified your true need, you can take action to meet that need without food, even if that action is simply to cry or close your eyes for a few minutes because you’re tired.

Counseling Can Help You Create A Healthier Relationship with Food

If you’ve been struggling with emotional eating, you may have tried countless diets or similar external solutions. You may be quite knowledgeable about nutrition. If your eating is emotion-driven and you’re seeking food for comfort or soothing, the solution may be in counseling vs. diet/nutrition approaches.

Many people don’t realize that their relationship with food can be healed psychologically vs. through a better meal plan.

We regularly offer a group therapy program to help you make peace with food. To get started now give us a call to schedule an appointment at 832-559-2622 or schedule an appointment online. We look forward to helping you!

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