Mind Over Meal: Are Comfort Foods Really Comforting?

We are pleased to welcome doctor of psychology Chuck Schaeffer on board as a regular contributor. This is his inaugural entry in what will be his regular column, Mind Over Meal.

Whether it's macaroni and cheese or rocky road ice cream, everyone has their go-to comfort food. While almost anyone can tell you that comfort foods make them feel good, very few people know why. This raises an important question: Are comfort foods really comforting?

Ask many psychologists, including this one, and they will tell you that yes, comfort foods can be comforting.  From a biochemical point of view, comfort foods — or foods that tend to have a lot of fat, sugar, and/or carbohydrates (think: cheesecake, lasagna, French fries) — work a lot like Prozac. When you eat these foods they trigger bursts of the positive mood-enhancing neurotransmitter serotonin within your brain, the same "happy hormone" that gets released by anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs like Prozac, Lexapro, Paxil, and Zoloft. 

Comfort foods can also be comforting because of the hard-wired emotional responses that your brain has to eating these foods based on prior experiences. Psychologists call this process "behavioral conditioning" — it's when the repeated experience of emotions or thoughts becomes directly connected to other repeated behaviors, such as eating.  When your parents fed you chicken soup when you were sick; when you learned that ice cream cake and pizza meant fun, exciting childhood birthday parties; and when you began to associate burgers and fried chicken with warm, loving family barbeques around the holidays, you were conditioned to connect warm and fuzzy emotions with eating comfort foods. 

Whether the explanation is biochemical or behavioral, you can now take comfort in knowing why comfort foods work.