Comfort Foods: Why Do We Crave Them & How Can We Keep them in Balance?

why do we crave comfort food

Why do we crave comfort food?


Susan works hard. This past week in particular was taxing; she juggled more projects and meetings than she really had time for while unanswered emails steadily filled her inbox. “If I can get through this week,” Susan told herself, “I’m going to treat myself.”


Researchers at the University of Illinois suggest that most of us crave comfort food in situations like Susan’s—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.


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.

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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.


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 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.


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.


Seek support

If you crave comfort food as your primary source of coping or self-care, things may feel out of balance. A therapist in Houston is specializing in emotional eating can help you identify alternate ways of coping and address your true needs. You may also discover also parts of yourself or your life that need your attention to help you feel more joyful, satisfied and fulfilled.

We regularly offer a twelve-week program to help you make peace with food along with weekend workshops. 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 help you!


Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, CGP on Twitter
Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, CGP
Rachel’s passion is to help people discover their personal gifts and strengths to achieve self-acceptance, create a healthy relationship with food, mind and body, and find meaning and fulfillment in work and life roles. She helps people create nurturance and healing from within to restore balance and enoughness and overcome binge eating, emotional eating, anxiety, depression and lack of career fulfillment.

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