The Science Behind Comfort Food

Life's ups and downs can sometimes feel like a rollercoaster you can't get off of, but there's always one thing that can make even the worst days feel a little more bearable: food. When the stress starts piling on, you might find yourself craving comfort food recipes like a fluffy batch of mashed potatoes, or when you're sick, you may feel the need to inhale a bowl of stew for a little inner warmth.

There are a number of ways in which comfort foods can affect our brain chemistry, and sometimes the feel-good foods we choose to consume can boost our mood purely based on the nostalgia factor. Homecooked meals like grandma used to make or traditional Thanksgiving spreads can trigger happy childhood memories that we may miss. Comfort eating will look different for everyone, but it's always about that short-term reward our brains are searching for through our stomachs.

One North American survey reported that, out of 1,000 people, ice cream was rated as leading comfort food among men and women, followed by foods like chocolate, pasta, and soup. It's not always the case, but when a meal or snack has loads of calories packed into it, it can often bring some much-needed relief from emotionally draining experiences. However, consuming comfort food can develop into a negative coping mechanism that could produce guilty feelings – for instance, after realizing you've accidentally eaten a whole bag of potato chips. Whatever your reason is for eating comfort food, the biochemistry behind it is undeniable.

Comfort food gives our brain a dopamine boost

If the favorite comfort food of every state can tell us anything, it's that there are so many different foods out there that can be literally heartwarming. One of the most iconic comfort dishes ever is even right in the title of the classic "Chicken Soup for the Soul" stories. How's that for a bit of nostalgia? Besides the happy associations that comfort eating can bring, rewarding ourselves via our palate is a surefire way to send a hit of dopamine right to your brain's pleasure centers.

The brain's "hedonic hotspots" become amplified when we eat sugary, salty, or fatty foods, which leads to future cravings that will produce the same results. Many comfort foods that are considered unhealthy-yet-delicious can cause the release of other hormones like stress-regulating cortisol. Consistently satisfying our cravings of foods high in fat and sugars can actually cause our brains to mix up the signals that tell us we are full. Instead, comfort foods "may trigger the release of hormones that reduce stressful emotions and therefore lead to a habitual desire for these 'comforting' foods" (via Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health).

In short, eating comfort foods can do wonders for the brain and one's overall mood, but it also has the ability to trick your brain in ways you didn't intend it to. Too much of anything can be a bad thing, but when you need a little pick-me-up, comfort food can really hit the spot.