Who hasn’t soothed themselves with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s or an extra-large helping of gooey mac and cheese after a particularly hard day — or week? We’ve all heard about, and certainly many of us have practiced, self-soothing with “comfort food.” But does eating food that’s satisfying because it’s sugary, fatty, or salty (bad for you) really affect your mood? Or are we just obsessed with food and will use any excuse to overindulge in things we know aren’t good for us?
Given the world’s current obesity epidemic, knowing what triggers some people to overindulge would be quite useful, and it’s an active area of research. More study is needed to fully understand eating patterns, but much has already been done to investigate what causes us to comfort ourselves with food, and why, for some people, it goes beyond an occasional indulgence.
Part of what researchers are trying to understand is what happens to our internal signals to eat in developed countries where we no longer have to forage and hunt to survive. Our drive to find and consume food developed during times of scarcity, but what happens to those internal cues when we live in a culture of food abundance? Food, for most of us, is ubiquitous, and the temptation to feed is everywhere. Hedonic eating — eating for pleasure, not hunger — is common.
It’s not hard to understand why we’ve become obsessed with food. But is it just obsession, or is there such a thing as food addiction? If indulging in your “forbidden food” of choice is an occasional thing, it’s probably relatively harmless. For some people, however, eating comfort food goes beyond the occasional indulgence, and specific conditions may underlie their eating behaviors.
Research shows a correlation between eating “highly palatable food” and the release of dopamine — the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. So it isn’t surprising that sometimes people turn to food to feel better. But for some, the response to dopamine is muted because they have fewer than normal dopamine receptors in their brain. Researchers think this may cause these people to indulge in more of certain foods to try and get the same feeling most of us do from a smaller portion.
When you repeatedly engage in an activity that causes the release of dopamine, like smoking a cigarette or eating a candy bar, your brain recognizes that the level of dopamine is too high and will start to reduce the number of dopamine receptors in an effort to maintain your body’s balance. This gradual decrease in responsiveness, or tolerance, results in needing more and more of a substance, in this case food, to achieve the same effect.
There is also a medically recognized eating disorder called binge eating. Binge eating is characterized by recurrent episodes (at least once per week for 3 months) of eating a large amount of food over a short period of time, and feeling like you can’t control it.
Food addiction is real and has similar aspects to drug addiction, but it’s challenging to study. For one thing, you don’t need drugs to survive, but you do need food. It’s not hard to see the path from food addiction to obesity and the many health-related problems that come with it.
Our bodies have reactions to junk food that are different from how they would react to anything found in nature. Indeed, research has shown that carbohydrates, sugar, and even salt may have the potential to lead to addictive behaviors in some people, especially if the eating is motivated by stress or strong emotions. It’s no wonder that most people will reach for potato chips or ice cream over an apple.
For some people though, the definition of comfort food may change with time and circumstances. If you stick with making healthy choices until cravings subside, you may find reward not only from the fact that you’re likely to lose weight, but you’ll probably feel better, and that alone can be a powerful motivator.
Recently, 64-year-old Micheline Heckler of Montrose, Colo., went to a (mostly) gluten-free diet. She hadn’t been feeling 100 percent for a while, and her chronic asthma was interfering with her day-to-day activities, preventing her from fully enjoying the things she loves to do. For one month she “detoxed,” eliminating corn, soy, sugar, and wheat from her diet. The results were dramatic.
“I felt so good, and that’s why I decided to go gluten free. My energy is so much better, my asthma is so much better,” she said.
Before her eating makeover, Heckler said her favorite comfort food was pasta. Now, comfort food for her can be a bowl of cherries or a tasty, healthy meal with a variety of flavorful ingredients.
The definition of “comfort food” varies from person to person. For some, food cravings are real, and it takes time, no small amount of willpower, and likely professional help, to get past them. It’s important to understand your triggers if you’re someone who struggles with binging or addiction. With self-awareness, you can monitor and minimize situations that are likely to prompt overeating.
Making healthful choices about food is conscious decision. Junk food can be hard to avoid — it’s fast and convenient, so you have to make an effort to arm yourself against temptation.
Keeping healthy snacks at home or in your purse or car if you’re away from can help. Choose minimally processed foods that have nutritional value as well as fiber to keep you full. Lowfat yogurt or a stick of string cheese coupled with a handful of nuts or a piece of fruit is a great snack.
If you tend to pick up a bucket of deep fried chicken and mashed potatoes for a quick meal after a long day at work, consider instead making a meal in your slow cooker. That way you can put dinner together ahead of time and have control over the ingredients. You can find countless recipes online for healthy, make-ahead, one-dish meals.
What motivates you to choose a piece of fruit over a bowl of ice cream is unique to you. But the more often you choose something healthy over comfort food, the easier it will become. Eventually, it won’t be something you’ll even have to think about.
Pass the cherries.
August 31, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN