The Psychology of Comfort Food

Many of us crave so-called “comfort foods” – mac and cheese, cake, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, and even tuna casserole – at certain times of the year like the holidays, at certain places like the state fair, with certain people like Mom, and when experiencing certain emotions like loneliness. But these dishes are laden with high-calorie, high-fat ingredients that leave us absolutely uncomfortable when we’ve finished eating them. But they are oh-so-good in the moment.

Foods that comfort us do so for two main reasons. First, they induce the release of “bliss chemicals” (opioids and cannabinoids) that work in concert with dopamine to activate the brain’s reward system, producing powerful reinforcement. And when we experience a defeat or get some sad news, when we’re overwhelmed, stressed out, angry, or anxious, we turn to them for the calming effects we attach to them.

Second, we come to crave foods that we have found reinforcing in the past. This could be because it’s a dish made by a loving family member, or we ate something during a pleasant time in our life, or it reminds us of a wonderful childhood memory. Highly rewarding food becomes reinforcing because we’ve learned that it makes us feel good. Our memory codes this information and as this process is repeated the association is reinforced and strengthened.

Foods that lead to comfort and pleasure become imprinted in the brain and the habit to pursue them becomes almost automatic and firmly established.

One of the best ways that I have found to disrupt this habit is to replace my comfort foods with healthier options. For me, one of my biggest comfort foods is brownies. Hot, fresh from the oven chocolaty goodness. Now, whenever I get that desire for a brownie I reach for the Medifast Brownie Soft Bake to satisfy that urge and this Halloween I am definitely going to make a Boo-rownie Sandwich.

What are some of your comfort foods? How can you replace them with healthier options? Let me know in the comments.